Case Scanning the heavens

Saab is often on the absolute cutting edge of technology, but at the same time always tries to find solutions that are cost efficient for its customers. One example of this is the digital radar technology that has caught the interest of Christer Fuglesang, Saab’s space advisor and Sweden’s first astronaut.

L-band Rocket Artillery Mortar (LRAM) is the name of a technology demonstrator Saab has developed in partnership with FMV. It applies a completely new type of technology that translates radar information from analogue to digital form at a very early stage, making it possible to design a powerful radar more cost-efficiently.

“The work we are doing is truly basic research, an area where Saab is highly advanced. By utilising digital technology, the number of microwave components in the radar system can be reduced, which lowers costs at the same time that it improves performance,” says Torild Lorentzon, coordinator for space operations at Saab.

The potential for the technology stretches all the way out to space. So says former astronaut Christer Fuglesang, now a professor of particle and astroparticle physics at the Royal Institute of Technology and part-time employee at Saab. He is helping the company to identify business concepts related to space and bring them to the space market.

“There is a big need both commercially and militarily to keep an eye on everything flying in low orbit around the earth, i.e. up to 2 000 km above the surface. Commercially, this means among other things helping satellites to avoid crashing with space debris. Militarily, it is interesting to know exactly when an enemy’s satellites are tracking what is happening on the ground. Then you can adapt your operations accordingly,” he explains.

Being able to aim a powerful radar into space would generate widespread interest. FMV financed a feasibility study during the year that Saab presented in November. It looked at possible design options and the limitations that a space radar system based on LRAM would have. It is conceivable to build a system that would be able to detect objects as small as 5 cm in size.

“There is a big international interest in the technology. One idea is that it could be Sweden’s ticket to EUSST (European Space Surveillance and Tracking), a consortium where the participating countries contribute various assets to space projects,” says Torild Lorentzon. “The next development step would be a test where the technology demonstrator is actually used in space radar surveillance.”

“If such a system becomes necessary, Sweden is in good position geographically to monitor satellites, since many of them pass in a polar orbit over the North Pole. In addition, we have an existing space infrastructure with Esrange, for example,” says Christer Fuglesang.

Could the technology be important to space travel and the astronauts who follow in his footsteps?

“Yes, perhaps indirectly, since the space radar could help in preventing collisions by keeping an eye on things up there. Then, of course, we could speculate as to whether the technology could be used in satellites themselves. The problem there is that radar requires a lot of energy, which is difficult to access up in space,” concludes Christer Fuglesang.