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March 5, 2014
ESA Space Debris Radar Detects First Objects

Even without a full calibration, ESA’s space-debris tracking system can detect smaller objects and at a longer range than expected, such as NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite, which presents a radar diameter of just 3.6 meters at a relatively high altitude of 537 km.

A prototype radar that will help Europe develop capabilities in space-debris surveillance is performing above expectations and showing its capability to detect objects in low orbits.

The radar, installed in the Madrid region of Spain, was handed over to the European Space Agency (ESA) by industry in November 2013 after extensive testing. This novel sensor contains key technologies for detecting space debris in low orbits and is an important step toward operational radars. Building collision-warning capabilities would boost the safety of Europe’s satellites in low and medium orbits.

The testbed is already spotting objects of around a meter in size, depending on their altitude and other factors. While this is less than the performance needed for a fully operational system—where around 10 cm is required—it already is sufficient to test and refine new technologies and techniques.

The radar is in a secure area, and all the test and validation activities are performed according to an agreed ESA data policy, the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme Security Instructions, put in place especially for this installation. During future testing, the radar data will be declassified—filtered against a “white list” of authorized space objects—before being sent to ESA’s SSA system for further processing and cataloging.

Image courtesy of ESA.

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