The biggest market in space today is satellites. It might not be the most exciting, but it is the propellant of the new space age. It builds on decades of government-sponsored projects that don’t match the ambition of today’s startups and profit-focused industry.
But the leftovers of yesteryear’s launches are now a risk for those entrepreneurs and today’s astronauts. One astronaut reported seeing a piece of debris hurl into the space shuttle’s window a few years ago, for example.
In response to a growing heap of trouble, one company is launching the first prototype for cleaning up our astronomical mess.
Astroscale has a Japanese soul in a Singaporean body. They call themselves the Space Sweepers and are likely to be the first company to get a tangible solution into orbit.
“We don’t want to waste people’s time with paper. We want to show people what we can do,” Business Development Manager Yasunori Yamazaki told Geektime recently at the International Astronautical Congress, illustrating their eagerness to get above the sky. Astroscale has already concluded a contract with Russian launch firm Cosmotrust for the launch of IDEA-1 (In-situ Debris Environmental Awareness) for 2016. That probe will begin surveying the pollution in low Earth orbit (LEO), pieces of space junk that are far too small for ground equipment to track.
But that is just laying the groundwork, with a 2017 launch for ADRAS-1 (Active Debris Removal by Astroscale). ADRAS will be the “mothership” in Yamazaki’s words. Plans are for six catcher satellites to be held on board the ship, while the first launch will only include one.
The company has designed a module (“Boy”) that uses an adhesive surface to glue onto pieces of space trash and bring it back to one of its carrier ships (the “mothership”). The size of those young Boys is small. The mothership concept is no longer than 60cm nor wider than 30cm, and that box-shaped satellite will have the capacity to hold six cleanup drones.
The debris issue is hard to quantify, though some estimates will tell you there are at least 21,000 pieces of man-made material in orbit at least the size of a grapefruit. When something that size hurdles toward the International Space Station at 28,000 miles per hour according to Astroscale’s CEO, that could be catastrophic. Astronaut Michael Bloomfield told Bloomberg last year that he remembers something hitting the window of the space shuttle one time when he was in orbit. It left a mark on the window.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are extremely concerned, but observers say bickering among the world’s space powers (U.S., China, and Russia) prevents the creation of an action plan. A 2011 report by NASA set off rather mute alarm bells when it said we had reached a “tipping point,” a critical mass of junk that could hinder future missions. In 2009, an active satellite was blown away when it collided with an inactive one, strewing innumerable amounts of metal into low Earth orbit. NASA is putting together a contract for some lucky company or aerospace consortium to monitor debris with a digital “space fence,” but that might be years away. A 2013 ESA call asked companies to join its e.Deorbit mission to dispose of dead satellites. Still, international cooperation with the U.S., EU, China, and Russia is probably far off.
The new space race: dash to the trash
Astroscale is not the only company trying to get ahead of what may end up being a service industry. Tethers Unlimited produces tethers to drag dead satellites into so-called “graveyard orbits.” The Global Aerospace Company has proposed using high altitude balloons to cache trash. Their most direct competition though is probably Swiss Space Systems (S3). S3 has been in talks with the FAA and their European and Canadian equivalents to get a mission up by 2018 called CleanSpace One. Their probe would weigh far less than the 100 kg ADRAS at about 30 kg. They will be launching from the back of their own patented European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle (SOAR). However, they’re behind schedule in the space trash race.
Astroscale hopes its Boys can pave the way for tougher missions in the future like delivering fuel supplies and repairing “micro-damage” to satellites by flying debris. Compared to those ambitious goals, they have a modest objective for the next two years: just sending up two major private satellite missions.
“I think it’s safe to say the mission will not be perfect, but that’s fine,” Yamazaki said. “We hope the first satellites will last five years, but realistically we think it will be about two or three.” While the marketing team worries that it has little time to prove its concept, they are getting results. They have already raised $7.7 million in Series A from Japanese venture firm JAFCO and a host of Japanese angels like Mistletoe Inc.’s Taizo Son. That money let them open their manufacturing headquarters in the Japanese capital, but Yamazaki promises they have other unnamed benefactors.
When asked about revenue models beyond the tens of millions needed to get off the ground, Yamazaki says that their motivation is realistic but focused now on an altruistic mission.
“It’s not about the money. There is a need that has to be answered. We are out to make a superior product.”
At a TEDx Talk last year, CEO Okada displayed a projection of an Earth in 2100 with a full ring of debris, reminding the audience that there was absolutely no debate about man’s role in making the mess. It was now time for humanity to clean it up.
“If we do not take any actions now, space’s future will look like this,” Okada said. “Let’s not leave this behind.”
Astroscale was founded by CEO Nobu Okada in 2013 and employs about 50 people between its headquarters in Singapore and manufacturing hub in Tokyo.