Southern Hemisphere’s first space junk radar to be built in Otago

Emily Cooper
Source: 1News

An American space company has announced it'll build a space radar in New Zealand.

Leo Labs' radar will be built in Central Otago and will be the first in the Southern Hemisphere. Eventually it will become part of a network of three to track space junk and collect it.

With the amount of junk in earth's low orbit area the risk of collision is high, so it will be able map debris and help stop collisions that could create new particles of space junk and damage expensive equipment.

That low orbit area is full of expensive space equipment including the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and various satellites; including communication satellites used on a daily basis.

Leo Labs CEO Daniel Ceperley told 1 NEWS space debris is becoming a bigger issue and a major threat to safe space operations. Even a small piece of debris can cause big issues.

"Space Debris is a big problem, because once you create it, it stays up there for a lifetime," Mr Ceperley told 1 NEWS.

Currently, only 5 per cent of space junk is tracked. When up and running, the Central Otago radar will be able to track the majority of space junk. It'll be the first radar able to detect smaller junk of around 2cm.

"The radar located here in New Zealand will be the first commercial radar that tracks all of the small debris," Mr Ceperley said.

The radar will be on the ground and looking up into space, to track space junk from earth.

But why New Zealand?

Leo Labs has an agreement with the Government under Innovative Partnerships programme, which is aimed at attracting international players to New Zealand to develop their products.

And, as of next year, companies like Leo Labs doing research and development business in New Zealand can apply for a tax credit.

Any company getting that tax credit will likely save a significant amount of money.

But they are adamant it's not the only reason they chose to work in New Zealand.

"It's been very easy to do business in New Zealand because I think we are connected with great enthusiasts for developing the space community," Leo Lab's Business Development manager Alan DeClerck told 1 NEWS.

"It's probably not so obvious to folks in New Zealand how unique that opportunity is," he said.

Peter Crabtree, head of the New Zealand Space Agency and the Innovative Partnerships programme at MBIE, said it's a huge opportunity for New Zealand and further cements us as a major player in the space industry.

"The world will be looking at this as indicative that New Zealand is a happening place in space," he said.

"This is about the future of New Zealand's economy and bringing international partners with world-class, amazing technology to come here."

Leo Labs said it plans to do business in New Zealand long term. An announcement on when the Central Otago radar is expected to be completed will be made early next year.