IARPA awards contract for tracking lethal space debris

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The intelligence agency tasked four contractors with researching new innovations to help better track small space debris that could harm spacecraft and satellites.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency selected four contractors Tuesday to help launch a new research program that will find new ways to detect and track miniature orbital space debris.

The agency detailed its plans for the Space Debris Identification and Tracking — or SINTRA — program, which will serve as the intelligence community’s first project in identifying and monitoring lethal non-trackable orbital material. 

IARPA officials said in a statement they had awarded A-Tech, LLC; Advanced Space, LLC; SRI International; and the West Virginia University Research Corporation research contracts as part of a four-year effort to help bridge gaps in current monitoring systems, which track debris larger than 10 centimeters or model the distribution of debris less than a millimeter.

“The global economy, telecommunications and security rely on constant satellite connectivity,” said Alexis Truitt, SINTRA Program Manager, in a statement. “Discovering new ways to understand the millions of man-made debris objects orbiting the earth, especially since they are ever-increasing in number, has never been more critical to everyday life.”

There's no word in the announcement about the value of the awards, but the agency noted in an answer to proposer questions about the solicitation that individual contracts "typically do not exceed $25 million." 

Officials estimate that there are more than 100 million objects larger than a millimeter currently in orbit, with less than a percent of it trackable by current sensors. With an average impact velocity of 22,500 mph in low Earth orbit, those objects pose a strong threat to spacecraft and satellites. 

As part of the program, the contractors will work to develop new innovative tools that can operate on existing ground-based radar, satellites and optical sensors to help track debris smaller than 10 centimeters. 

According to IARPA’s September 2022 solicitation for SINTRA, the current low Earth orbit debris field has increased due to events like the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test, the 2009 collision of the Cosmos and Iridium satellites and a November 2021 Russian anti-satellite test, but the addition of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation and the deployment of more CubeSats have also crowded lower altitudes. 

 SINTRA will focus on developing capabilities that can track debris at altitudes higher than current ground-based radar are capable of monitoring, both developing new sensors and utilizing existing ones to create a collision-free detection method. 

The MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will serve as the SINTRA test and evaluation team.