Future industry: Astroscale aims to remove junk from space

January 06, 2020 15:16
Chris Blackerby, Astroscale’s group chief operating officer, said the company is developing its satellite ELSA-d to provide space debris removal service. Photo: Astroscale

Astroscale, a company founded by Japanese Nobu Okada, has taken on a bold mission: to design and operate satellites that will remove man-made debris in space.

The purpose of the undertaking is significant: to prevent a catastrophic collision in space that could paralyze the world’s transport, defense, and telecommunication systems.

In just over 50 years of space exploration and conquest, we have sent more than 5,000 satellites into space, resulting in roughly 42,000 tracked objects circling the Earth's orbit, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

“But a lot of those satellites, when they failed or when they finished their lifetime, have remained in space as debris,” Chris Blackerby, Astroscale’s group chief operating officer, told EJ Insight in an interview.

“In our orbital environment, there are half a million pieces of debris that [are as small as] 1 millimeter, and about 22,000 to 23,000 pieces that are bigger than 10 centimeters.”

What’s worse is that over the next 10 years, an estimated 6,200 small satellites will be launched into orbit, according to space consultancy Euroconsult’s estimation in 2018.

NASA says there are about 500,000 pieces of debris, old satellites and rockets floating around the Earth, traveling at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour (8 kilometers per second). A collision could instantly shatter a multimillion-dollar satellite.

And don’t expect the world’s space leaders to initiate the clean-up.

All the floating space junk, including defunct satellites, burnt-out rockets, and rubbish discarded by astronauts, can knock out expensive, commercially vital and geopolitically strategic satellites, and cause devastation to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of space-based equipment.

Worse, a chain reaction of destruction could render entire bands of low-earth orbit unnavigable for satellites, destroying the satellite networks we depend upon for things like GPS, weather forecasts and broadcasting.

Tokyo-headquartered Astroscale is among a small group of businesses vying to be the first to develop a commercially viable way to mitigate orbital debris and capture an unusual, but potentially lucrative, market.

Three challenges

“We have to solve the technology, the business model, and the regulation challenge concurrently," said Blackerby, describing the three major aspects of how Astroscale works to clean up space junk.

The company’s technology solution is to attach a specially designed, ferromagnetic docking plate onto satellites which can be targeted and captured by a “chaser” vehicle equipped with a robotic arm and a magnet capture mechanism.

The aim is to pull the defunct satellites down toward the Earth’s atmosphere where both the chaser and the satellite will burn up.

Astroscale is developing a satellite wrecking truck called “ELSA-d”, which stands for “End of Life Services by Astroscale demonstration".

“We are launching the mission in 2020, which includes two spacecraft: a servicing satellite and a satellite simulating a piece of debris, for a series of tests to include the guidance navigation control (GNC), inspection, rendezvous along with tumbling and non-tumbling debris removal technology,” said Blackerby as he showed us a reaper-style space robot that will be doing the job.

While it is obviously too late to attach docking plates to satellites already in space, Blackerby hopes that companies operating satellite networks will need Astroscale’s services, either to make their orbits safe or to remove faulty or defunct satellites from space.

The company is trying to prove a concept known as “satellite servicing”, which is not an option for satellite operators right now because once they launch a satellite into orbit, they don't intend to reach that satellite again.

Docking plate standard

Astroscale is also pitching satellite operators and regulatory bodies to require all satellites in the future to adopt a docking plate standard “so that if there's a problem, we can go up and fix it, like the roadside car services on earth, we will go up to space, find the satellite, and bring it out of the way”.

Even if a test scheduled for this year does prove that the technology works, Astroscale still needs to prove that there is a viable commercial market for space debris removal.

“It is difficult to convince people to pay money [for our services],” Blackerby said.

For now, there is a “general understanding” that the person or organization who launches the satellite should be responsible for de-orbiting and bringing it back into the Earth’s atmosphere to let burn up, within 25 years after the end of its operation.

“But 25 years is a long time, and tracking that and putting any kind of penalty or regulations in place to make sure the satellites come down within the 25-year timeframe is really difficult to make a reality now,” he said.

Astroscale is trying to convince commercial satellite operators that making sure the orbit is sustainable is not just an environmental issue but also a business sustainability issue as well.

“If there is a lot of debris in orbit, and one of your satellites fails, it's in your company’s interest to remove your debris in space and to make sure that the orbit is cleaned up,” Blackerby said.

Among Astroscale’s direct customers would be telecommunications and satellite operators, which are building satellites and relying on them to provide services.

The company is also talking to insurance firms so that companies launching satellites could have their insurance premiums reduced if they choose to have a debris removal service.

Pricing scheme

While it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch a satellite, hiring a space debris removal service can also be very expensive. “E.deorbit”, an ESA mission that will attempt to remove a derelict satellite from orbit in 2023, will reportedly cost US$400 million.

Asked about the pricing scheme for Astroscale’s debris removal service, Blackerby said the company does not have one yet. “Our first focus is our first couple of missions to demonstrate the technology first, and then we are going to see how we can make sure we get a price that is acceptable to a customer.”

On the regulatory challenges, what also slows down Astroscale’s progress is that there is no one government agency that oversees activities in space. “So it is hard to really put rules in place,” said Blackerby.

Astroscale is currently talking to several regulatory agencies and governments on how to incorporate specific requirements regarding satellite and debris removal into the licensing process for companies that plan to launch satellites.

“Space debris is just one of the many concerns that governments have to deal with,” said Blackerby. “[We are trying to convince them that] if we allow too much debris to accumulate up in orbit, all those services such as weather monitoring, environment protection, national security and defense, information and communication, will be at risk. So governments are starting to recognize that if they don’t act, there could be a problem.”

Blackerby said the company is working closely with government groups and space agencies in several countries, such as the US Commerce Department, which is taking a significant role in space traffic management, the British government, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, ESA, and international organizations such as the United Nations.

Astroscale may be gaining some advantage by working with stakeholders such as governments, space agencies, and the space industry for commercializing debris removal and working toward a regulatory environment that can maintain orbital sustainability.

More capital needed

The company is currently focused on research and development; it does not have any customers or make any revenues. With an initial capital of US$220,000 from founder Nobu Okada, the venture needs more capital to carry its mission forward and eventually come to the market.

According to Crunchbase, Astroscale has raised over US$148 million in venture capital funding since its founding in 2013. One of its early investors was Taizo Son, head of tech venture capital company Mistletoe, who is also the younger brother of SoftBank chief and famed tech investor Masayoshi Son.

Other Astroscale’s backers include ANA Holdings, SBI Investment, Mitsubishi Estate, Japanese public-private investment fund INCJ, and Japan’s oldest and largest venture capital firm Jafco, which is Japan’s version of Sequoia Capital, which oversees about 430 billion yen (US$4 billion).

As Astroscale starts to draw attention and funding from companies and governments, competitors are emerging to propose their own technology solutions to remove space debris.

Blackerby believes competition will only help reassure Astroscale’s backers as to the viability of the business. 

And as people become more aware of the risks of space collisions and governments start to devise regulations on the use of satellites, members of the industry will develop their sense of responsibility and space debris removal will become a vital industry of the future.

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There are over a million pieces of debris orbiting the Earth, which could lead to a catastrophic collision in space that could paralyze the world’s transport, defense, and telecommunication systems. Photo: Astroscale

EJ Insight writer