Astroscale sees big role for itself amid commercial space race

January 07, 2020 12:37
Astroscale founder and CEO Nobu Okada speaks at an industry conference on how the company addresses the issue of space debris. Photo: Astroscale

For decades, space has been the domain of governments. But Astroscale, a seven-year-old startup that wants to clear space trash from Earth’s orbit, aims to be one of the first private companies to develop a commercially viable way to enter the unusual but potentially lucrative future market of space.

The global space industry will grow to over US$1.1 trillion in 2040, from US$350 billion revenues in 2018, according to the US investment bank Morgan Stanley. The growth will be driven mostly by an exponential increase in demand for data, which will require a similar increase in satellite capacity providing the telecommunications service.

With an estimated 750,000 bits of old satellites and rockets circling the Earth at about 1800 miles per hour, or 8 km per second, the debris problem in space is massive. Aerospace and technology consultant Technavio estimated that the market for debris removal and monitoring could reach US$2.9 billion by 2022. Debris removal technology is forecast to account for more than half of that value.

The enormous future potential makes it an exciting new market for tech startups like Astroscale to tackle. The company is preparing to rendezvous with, capture and dock a test satellite this year to show how its technology can help clear orbiting junk and prevent space-debris collisions that could disrupt the world’s communications systems.

Going forward, Astroscale will offer space debris removal service to satellite operators, telecommunications companies, insurance companies, and governments, among other potential clients.

Historically, the US Department of Defense has been the most authoritative tracker of objects that could threaten satellites and NASA missions. The US military now monitors tens of thousands of orbital objects via radar and handles the space traffic management.

“We position ourselves as a small startup to actually provide a consistent service better than, say, a really large company or a government entity,” Chris Blackerby, Astroscale’s group chief operating officer told EJ Insight. “As a private company, we can hopefully do things faster, less expensively; we can be more nimble and make decisions quicker.  

“In fact, our target customers include space agencies like NASA; they should be a customer of us to clean up the orbiting debris,” he said in an interview.

Founded by Japanese entrepreneur Nobu Okada in 2013, Astroscale is one of the emerging private sector players in the secretive space industry, which is a bureaucratic collective that has just begun to open up to private companies.

"Earth’s orbit is like a natural resource, the same way you see forests or lakes or mountains,” said Blackerby. "We need that natural resource in order to have the life that we have today, which is so reliant on the services we receive from satellites.”

One key driver for the fast-growing space industry in recent years, according to Blackerby, is the decreased cost of building satellites and rockets thanks to technology innovation and advancement, such as the miniaturization of computers, which has enabled smaller and cheaper spacecraft.

Private ventures and space companies like Amazon-backed Blue Origin, Tesla-backed SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, among others, are starting to build out the capability that allows easier access to space, kick-starting the commercial spaceflight market.

According to venture capital firm Space Angels, the commercial space sector has drawn US$24.6 billion investment since 2009, and a US$5 billion of that has been pumped just in the first three quarters of 2019, driving market excitement, curiosity and innovation.

SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Tesla founder and tech billionaire Elon Musk, has been working hard since its creation in 2002 to rocket its first human passengers into space, with its futuristic plan for conquering Mars.

"SpaceX is one of the first big companies to lead a private venture of new space initiatives," Blackerby noted. "SpaceX and Elon Musk have inspired a lot of people and new companies to say, ‘I want to do that too,’ and it drove a lot of people to work for SpaceX, and probably a lot of people to start their own space company.”

The space industry is in the middle of a widespread transformation, as the last decade has seen a number of young companies starting to seek to profit in an area where most of the money was made from military contracts or expensive communications satellites. Wall Street’s consensus is that space will become a multi trillion-dollar economy in the next 10 to 20 years — a view that investors are banking on today.

Riding on the broad investor interest, the US government has been developing policies that make it more attractive for companies, both big and small, to get involved in space, said Blackerby.

Last month, US President Donald Trump officially funded a Pentagon force focused on warfare in space - the US Space Force, which will help the country to “deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground” in space, "the world's newest war-fighting domain", as Trump described.

“Space Force is one example of the growing interest in the space industry, as the country has put out several policy directives focusing on different aspects, such as space exploration, going back to the Moon and building up colonizations or settlements on the Moon and so on, etc,” said Blackerby.

Along with a manufacturing and research & development hub in Tokyo, Japan, and an operations center in the UK, Astroscale has established a Washington office in 2019, to improve links with the US aerospace establishment.

“In the near term, we are focusing on three markets: Japan, the US, and Europe; we work very closely with the US Department of Commerce, Japan’s JAXA, the European Space Agency ESA, as well as the UK government,” said Blackerby.

The US White House in June 2018 issued a policy directive that assigns the Department of Commerce the responsibility for providing basic space traffic management data and services, pointing out that satellites are increasingly commercial operations.

As aerospace giants and private capital continue to invest billions of dollars in new technologies and opportunities in space, one of the significant developments in the industry is the multiple initiatives from tech giants to develop space-based internet services.

Musk's SpaceX, social networking giant Facebook, as well as Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, are battling in the race to create a network of satellites in low Earth orbit that will provide high-speed terrestrial internet services.

In the coming years, these firms plan to launch a further combined 20,000 satellites as part of upcoming “mega-constellations” that will beam the internet to the ground. For example, SpaceX’s initiative, called Starlink, involves sending 12,000 mini-refrigerator-size satellites aloft over the next few years.

While they envision serving tens of millions of people who lack basic access to broadband internet, Blackerby, who is working to remove debris and satellites from orbit to make space sustainable, expressed some concern over these initiatives, as launching a bunch of satellites increases the risk of collisions and space debris, endangering the orbital environment.

"A lot of companies, countries and universities are launching more and more satellites, and the orbits are already quite crowded. If we wait until there is another accident, it is going to be more difficult to clean up [the orbit]. That is why we think we need to act sooner rather than later.”

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See also: Future industry: Astroscale aims to remove junk from space

Chris Blackerby, Astroscale's group COO, elaborates at an industry event on the company's vision to create a solution for space debris removal and the orbital sustainability. Photo: Astroscale
Scheduled to launch in 2020, Astroscale's ELSA-d is the first mission to demonstrate the core technologies necessary for space debris docking and removal. Photo: Astroscale

EJ Insight writer