WASHINGTON — SRI International announced Oct. 4 it selected the defense technology firm Leidos and startup Scout Space as subcontractors for a space debris-tracking project funded by the U.S. intelligence community.
SRI, a nonprofit research institute based in Menlo Park, California, is one of four companies that won contracts from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to attempt to track tiny debris objects in orbit that currently are undetectable by ground-based sensors.
The project, known as Space Debris Identification and Tracking (SINTRA), is expected to be completed in four years. IARPA is an agency under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
IARPA wants to identify technologies and methods to successfully track debris objects smaller than 10 centimeters long, or about the size of a credit card.
“Small debris is an unaddressed and growing threat,” said Lin van Nieuwstadt, a senior engineer at SRI and principal investigator. Even objects as small as paint chips can cause serious damage to spacecraft.
‘A difficult problem’
As much as scientists have worked on this issue for decades, “it is such a difficult problem to look at the small objects,” van Nieuwstadt told SpaceNews.
SRI will experiment with new approaches to analyze radar data in order to home in on the smallest debris objects in low Earth orbit, she said. “We hope to extend reliable tracking of objects in space down to previously unobservable scales.”
SRI has extensive experience using radar to track space objects, van Nieuwstadt noted. The company LeoLabs, which operates a global network of radar sensors to monitor low Earth orbit, was founded in 2016 in Menlo Park by former SRI International executives.
For the SINTRA project, SRI will not be working with LeoLabs. It will use data from a radar site the company manages for the National Science Foundation at Poker Flat in Alaska, and from other ground-based…