LeoLabs raises $4M to build out its space debris collision avoidance network

Low-Earth orbit is a prime candidate for explosive commercial growth, but it’s also a space where the risk of actual explosions resulting from debris impact is a legitimate concern for businesses focused on the opportunity. That’s the problem LeoLabs aims to address, a startup spun out of SRI International to detect, map and help avoid collisions with debris and objects floating in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

LeoLabs is announcing $4 million in investment from SRI International, Horizons Ventures and Airbus Ventures, and is also adding the Midland Space Radar facility in Midland, Texas to its network of ground-based radar monitoring facilities, which help it track the objects it’s mapping.

The issue LeoLabs is hoping to solve is helping the growing number of ventures working with cubsats and smallsat networks, as well as emerging ventures looking to put people into low-Earth orbit for short tourist flights, like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Avoiding collisions in LEO is a pressing issue because it’s already a crowded region of space in terms of objects like existing satellites, as well as debris from spacecraft, defunct equipment and more. And collisions in LEO stand to amplify the problem – objects smashing into one another results in more debris and more treacherous navigation of LEO space overall.

There are already some options for keeping clear of other objects in LEO – the U.S. Air Force maintains a public catalog that even alerts those registered to use it about potential collisions, explains LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley in an email interview with TechCrunch. But with increasing complexity and interest in the space, there’s a need for more advanced tools, the company believes.

LeoLabs' new Midland ground radar monitoring facility.

LeoLabs’ new Midland ground radar monitoring facility.

LeoLabs’ solution has unique capabilities including accuracy to within 100 meters, along with verification mechanisms; data offered up on a predefined schedule; tracking of each piece of debris and object in LEO multiple times per day, thanks to its network of ground monitoring stations; the ability to track up to 250,000 new objects that aren’t tracked by public monitoring systems today; and an API so that customers can use the info with their own systems via tight integration.

That last advantage is a big one, and Ceperley explains how that works for clients and why it’s valued.

“We provide raw data,” he said. “Plus, we provide services built on top of this data to address specific customer needs, such as avoiding collisions. Finally, we are heavily investing in the data services platform that will enable third-parties to innovate on top of the data”

Ceperley added that there’s a lot left to figure out regarding best practices and regulations in LEO operations, especially given the growing interest from smaller private players and new entrants into the space. LeoLabs can help with that conversation as it proceeds, Ceperley says, thanks to its continued mission to offer up as much data as possible about LEO traffic.