Space Business: Costa Radar

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Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: A global radar net expands, how to count a space walk and Europe cuts space funding.


Carlos Alvarado Quesada was elected president of Costa Rica in 2018, putting efforts to decarbonize his country’s economy at the center of his administration—but his concern for the environment also extends to orbit.

When Alvarado was five years old, he recalls watching the first Costa Rican astronaut, Franklin Chang Diaz (pdf), speak to the then-president of Costa Rica on a call from orbit in the Space Shuttle Columbia. That moment of international space diplomacy led to this week’s announcement that Costa Rica has been chosen to host a space radar by the company LeoLabs.

International cooperation in space is often seen as a government-to-government operation, with disparate space agencies uniting to accomplish a major goal, like building a football-field-sized orbital laboratory. Chang, who immigrated to the US as a child and earned a Ph.D. at MIT, saw this close up as he flew seven times on the Space Shuttle before the end of his career as a NASA astronaut.

In his post-NASA career, Chang founded a company, Ad Astra, to provide engineering services and help develop the space sector in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, LeoLabs was spun out of the Silicon Valley research lab SRI to build a network of space radars that could effectively track even tiny debris in low-earth orbit. Its founders saw opportunity in helping the burgeoning LEO satellite industry avoid destructive collisions that, in a worst case scenario, could render the environment around our planet unusable.

To do its job, LeoLabs needs to build radar stations across the globe. Its first sites were in Alaska and Texas, and the third was in New Zealand, another nation now enthusiastically taking on space technology challenges. When Chang learned that LeoLabs was on the hunt for a site near the equator for its next radar, he was able to connect his country and the company.

“It’s not that often that the public sector in Costa Rica gets a request to develop this kind of radar technology,” Alvarado says. “We are trying to strengthen our cluster of space technologies in the country. It is so exciting to be part of this network of radars developed by LeoLabs that are going to allow humanity to chart an area we have been contaminating in the past years.”

It’s not unusual for satellite companies to set up ground stations in far-flung locales, given the physics of creating a global network. But the growing importance of space infrastructure to the economy will only increase this kind of foreign investment, and hopefully offer a platform for economic development.

“Costa Rica is working a lot in narrowing the gap with technology and science and data for better decision-making,” the country’s environment and energy minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, explains. When it comes to decarbonization, much useful data comes from space sensors, whether that is monitoring deforestation, methane leaks, or climate change on a global level. As those tools become more important, so too will protecting the environment where they operate—and that, in effect, is what LeoLabs will be doing in Costa Rica.

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Imagery Interlude

Here’s Franklin Chang Diaz performing a space walk during his final space shuttle mission in 2002.

Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during extravehicular activity (EVA) to perform work on the International Space Station (ISS). The first spacewalk of the STS-111 mission began with the installation of a Power and Data Grapple Fixture (PDGF) for the station's robotic arm on the complex's P6 truss. The PDGF will allow the robotic arm to grip the P6 truss for future station assembly operations. Astronauts Chang-Diaz and Philippe Perrin (with French Space Agency, CNES) went on to install the new fixture about halfway up the P6 truss, the vertical structure that currently supports the station's set of large U.S. solar arrays.
Image: NASA

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When it comes to selecting astronauts, there are a lot of hoops to jump through; the same is true for many jobs. But society’s approach to hiring also winds up reflecting society’s biases, and discrimination in the labor market means subpar outcomes for all of us. What if we could get rid of all that quite literally—no more resumes, applications, or background checks. For entry-level jobs, “open hiring” could mean more opportunity for all and more efficiently run companies. Find out more in the second half of our guide to creating an antiracist company.



Inside the space walk conspiracy. This week, astronauts Bob Behnken and Chris Cassidy performed the 300th space walk in NASA history. Or did they? Space history buffs say that NASA changed the way it tracks extra-vehicular activity in order to generate a nice a round number to celebrate. Specifically, NASA is now including seven occasions when Apollo astronauts popped open their space capsules to jettison trash as “space walks,” which arguably makes this week’s EVA number 293. “I was on the 100th EVA on [a 2001 space shuttle mission] and I’m not giving it back,” former astronaut Tom Jones told the website collectSPACE. “I’ve got the back-up placard for the one I carried outside and I’m not giving that back. They are not going to change the number on it.”

Europe space budget a preview for NASA? The European Commission slashed its contribution to the European Space Agency’s budget for the next seven years to €13.2 billion ($15.2 billion) after initially contemplating a €15.2 billion ($17.5 billion) allotment in May. The reduction comes in part because of the United Kingdom’s departure from the regional bloc, but also to offset increased spending on coronavirus relief. These priorities may be a preview for the US space agency, which is seeking a large increase in spending to return to the Moon even as lawmakers contemplate a second multi-trillion dollar rescue bill.

Outbreak: Baikonur. The “space city” on the steppes of Kazakhstan has become a coronavirus hotspot, the Moscow Times reports, despite efforts by the Russian government to play down the effects of the pandemic. Baikonur is the primary launch site for Russian space vehicles and until May had been the only departure site for astronauts traveling to the International Space Station. The top designer at Russia’s Energia aerospace conglomerate died from Covid-19 after witnessing the last launch there in April, and now residents worry that their suffering is being pushed under the rug as the spread of the disease worsens.

Mars 2021 Leaderboard. The invasion of the red planet set for early next year is well underway, with the United Arab Emirates Amal orbiter successfully launching from Japan on July 19. Next up is China’s Tianwen lander mission, expected to launch last night if all goes according to plan. Finally, on July 30, the US is expected to launch its 1 ton Perseverance rover to Mars.

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This was issue 58 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send you theories on space walk numerology, inside info on the NASA budget, tips, and informed opinions to