Spain installs radar to detect hazardous space debris

Spain has installed a radar that will test methods for finding orbital debris hazardous to space navigation.

Following an 18-month design and development phase, the radar was installed near Santorcaz, about 30km from Madrid, and the first series of acceptance and validation tests are scheduled to begin in mid-November.

ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office and Spain’s Indra Espacio signed a €4.7m (£3.8m) contract to build the radar in 2010.

Early debris detection is crucial to help warn satellite operators of collision risks and to enable avoidance manoeuvres to be made. The newly installed radar will be used to develop future debris warning services.

Indra Espacio is the prime industrial partner and is responsible for the design and development of the radar transmitter. The development of the radar receiver was subcontracted to the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques (FHR) in Wachtberg, Germany.

In a statement, Nicolas Bobrinsky, head of ESA’s SSA preparatory programme, said: ‘Installation of the test radar at Santorcaz is a significant milestone in ESA’s SSA programme.

‘Fielding a so-called “breadboard” radar means that Spanish and German industry are developing world-class technical expertise in the radar detection of hazardous space debris.’

According to ESA, the breadboard design makes the radar easily reconfigurable depending on test results, helping engineers to optimise its performance over time.

The radar deployed in Spain by ESA makes use of the monostatic design, in which the transmitter and receiver are co-located within just a few hundred metres.

A second contract to develop a bistatic design radar, in which the transmitter and receiver are separated by several hundreds of kilometres, was signed with a separate industrial grouping in September 2012.

‘This monostatic radar will be used to demonstrate and validate radar technologies for space debris surveillance in low-altitude orbits,’ said Gian Maria Pinna, ground segment manager in ESA’s SSA office.

‘Although the capabilities of the test radar are limited, its design will allow us to achieve considerable understanding of the technical problems inherent in orbital debris detection with radar techniques — a know-how that ESA is increasingly building up via the SSA programme.’

The bistatic and monostatic test radars will eventually be joined by an initial set of optical telescopes for the surveillance of higher-altitude orbits, and the entire system will be incrementally improved to develop precursor warning services for satellite operators.