Katayama Osamu profiles Tokyo-based orbital debris removal company Astroscale.
“The removal of orbital debris is a big dream. But every company and organization involved in space, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), started from a big dream.”
So says Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale, a space venture company on a mission to launch a commercial service of removing orbital debris.
“By cleaning up space we can assure a sustainable environment for space satellites. This will provide societal benefits today and assure a better world for the next generation. We also expect it to have extensive possibilities as a business,” Blackerby says.
There have been few successful cases of testing orbital debris collection in the past. As the technology and business case is so difficult, missions such as this are usually pursued by an academic institution, national agency, or major corporation engaging in space development. Is it possible that a venture company is able to realize such a dream?
There is a lot of debris in Earth’s orbit. Defunct satellites, used upper stage rocket engines, and fragments of satellites that have broken into pieces are all artificial debris. It is said that there are more than 23,000 such pieces of debris 10 centimeters and longer and more than 750,000 pieces of debris 1 centimeter and longer. The issue of orbital debris is a serious one when considering future space development.
It is unthinkable that orbital debris will vanish naturally unless it is removed. Depending on the altitude, debris will continue to orbit the Earth for hundreds of years. When certain orbits get too crowded with debris, it forces operators to choose different locations, far away from a collision course with orbital debris. But of course, an increase in debris means limitations on the usable orbits.
If orbital debris should crash into artificial satellites and space stations, it would cause serious damage. Blackerby explained a theory called the Kessler Syndrome that shows this danger: “In the event of a collision between orbital debris and satellites in space, many tiny pieces of new debris will be created. This will cause a chain reaction of more crashes, resulting in an exponential increase in orbital debris.” If that occurs, the situation will be irrecoverable. Future space development will be impossible without the removal of orbital debris.
The Space Debris Remover
Nobu Okada, the founder and CEO of Astroscale, paid keen attention to this. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture at the University of Tokyo, Okada joined the Ministry of Finance. After obtaining an MBA from the Krannert School of Business, Purdue University in the United States, he worked for a consulting firm and then managed several IT companies. Okada always had a passion for space and founded Astroscale in Singapore in 2013 to try and bring a business mindset to solving the problem of space debris. He is a highly unique entrepreneur who is the engine that drives this team of “space sweepers.”
Okada did not come from the space industry, but as Blackerby says, “Many major businesspeople currently leading the space business, such as Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and founder of Blue Origin, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, come from industries other than aerospace. Nobu [Okada] is also one of these businesspeople and, like them, he has been able to bring a fresh perspective. Rather than a traditional mindset, he brought methods from the start-up world and IT industry to the space business. I believe that this approach enabled him to think in a manner that was free from conventional wisdom.”
Astroscale established a research and development base in a district near Tokyo Skytree in Sumida City, Tokyo, in 2015, two years after its foundation.
This base is a small three-story building that looks like a garage. Inside it are worktables, monitors and measuring instruments, as well as a meeting space, where it was clear that engineers were hard at work. On the wall is a large picture by cartoonist Matsumoto Leiji, who is famous as the creator of The Galaxy Express 999 manga.
At the back of the first floor is a clean room where the team assembles the satellites. This facility is a base of manufacturing as well as research and development.
Astroscale assembles satellites by working with suppliers from around the world. For their first mission, a technology demonstration mission called End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d), about half of the parts and components are being procured domestically, including from small and medium-sized enterprises. While future procurement strategies are still uncertain, it is clear that Astroscale is growing – a new office was just built across the street from the current one in order to house new staff and build new satellites.
The Space Sweepers Team
Blackerby worked for NASA in the United States for ten years and came to Japan in 2012 as the NASA Attaché for Asia. He worked for the US Embassy in Japan as a senior policy official for five years. Why did this member of the largest space agency in the world move to a small start-up in Sumida City?
Blackerby says, “I wanted to take on a new challenge. I decided to join Astroscale because I was excited by its clear business model and vision.”
While working for the US Embassy, Blackerby got the impression that the global space business was rapidly expanding. The commercial use of space was becoming more clear and space venture companies, including those based in Japan, were leading the charge.
Blackerby says, “A new ecosystem was born, and space was becoming a very exciting and interesting place to do business. I came to know of Astroscale while I was still with NASA and got to know Nobu as a good friend and colleague. As I was concluding my time at the Embassy I started to get interested in the prospect of taking on a new challenge. The fact that Nobu is such an exciting person was a decisive factor and his great passion and strong drive make Astroscale a fun place to work.”
Astroscale, which was founded by Okada alone, had increased to about twenty full-time employees, nearly all of whom were Japanese, in 2017 when Blackerby joined, four years after its foundation. As of the end of 2018, the total number of employees had increased to about sixty, over 30% of whom are from outside of Japan. Astroscale now has a global presence, with a ground segment in the United Kingdom for managing satellites after the launch as well as offices in Singapore and Japan. In addition, Astroscale has a representative stationed in the United States.
Young people from around the globe are recognizing the importance of the ambitious vision to clean up space. Astroscale actually receives numerous resumes every day from all around the world, including Western and Asian countries.
In fact, Astroscale employees come from over ten countries, including Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Singapore and Australia. This includes experts ranging from young people fresh out of graduate school to engineers with extensive work experience in the space business with major corporations.
Astroscale is also raising funds. In four funding rounds Okada and his team have raised over 100 million USD, including a capital injection of 56 million USD in October 2018. The lead investor is the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), with support from several other investors driven by the societal benefits and business possibilities of space debris removal. This is the largest amount of funds raised by a Japanese space venture company.
But Astroscale still faces many difficult challenges involved in being an orbital debris remover. The most significant issues generally are: (1) technology, (2) potential customers and (3) space policy and regulations. Regarding technology, the question is how Astroscale will remove orbital debris moving at 28,000 km per hour. The task of capturing an object moving at such a high speed is very difficult, but the concept is simple. “Imagine a Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) truck attaching a hook to a broken-down car and towing it away,” says Blackerby. “In the future, highly visible docking plates with a ferromagnetic surface will be attached to satellites before they are launched. A removal satellite, equipped with powerful magnets, finds and approaches the debris in orbit and collects it by magnetically attaching to the docking plate. The servicing satellite then brings the debris into the atmosphere where it burns up with the satellite.”
But this solution is only for missions that will be launched in the future. This approach of magnetic capture cannot be applied to the substantial amount of debris that is already drifting in space. How should this debris be disposed of? Blackerby says, “There are currently large amounts of orbital debris already in orbit, all of which are risks to active satellites. However, experts predict that by simply removing five large pieces of debris from orbit each year the risk of a collision will be drastically reduced. We are currently considering the method for collection of existing large pieces of debris, one of which could be robotic arms.”
The technical solution will only be effective of course if Astroscale can develop a business and find customers. Since space is not owned by any one entity there is no one to force companies to pay for cleaning.
Blackerby thinks there will be customers though. “In the case of future satellites, operators will be potential customers. There is an incentive for these operators to maintain clean and sustainable orbits from an environmental and business sustainability perspective. In regards to existing orbital debris, the customers will be the governments of countries around the world. These governments have been responsible for launching the satellites that are currently in orbit and they are starting to recognize their responsibility in bringing down the debris.
Creating a business is significantly influenced by shifting global norms and regulations. The business of space is not something that is easy and straightforward as the motives of nations and large corporations are entangled. Currently there are many international groups, members of which include representatives from non-profit organizations and government agencies, which are discussing the creation of policies to assure more sustainable orbital environments. The threat from orbital debris is becoming severe for both governments and satellite operators as space development continues to grow. There is growing awareness from people around the world that specific actions are necessary to enable a safer future.
In November 2017, Astroscale attempted to launch IDEA OSG 1, a satellite for measuring sub-millimeter debris in low-Earth orbit, on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Unfortunately though, the rocket failed to reach orbit after launch and, as a result, IDEA OSG 1 and the other satellites on the vehicle, never were able to return any data.
Looking back, Blackerby says, “Our members were disappointed and saddened by the failed launch. However, all aerospace engineers know that working in space is difficult and it was important to look ahead and go forward. Our team gained valuable experience and learned very good lessons in terms of satellite development, supply chain management, the need for regulatory framework and team-building. We gained a lot as a team.”
Astroscale could not afford to give up. It began to move quickly, looking ahead to its next satellite launch. It plans to launch ELSA-d, a demonstration test satellite for removing orbital debris, in early 2020.
During the mission a servicing satellite will launch while connected to a piece of simulated orbital debris. The servicing satellite will approach and collect the target using a magnetic capture mechanism that attaches to a docking plate. The mission will attempt several maneuvers, proving that the servicing satellite can find and connect to the debris even if it is rotating or is lost.
Astroscale has numerous issues to tackle, including technology, production, launch costs and the acquisition of human resources. But it is making steady preparations for the next satellite launch.
Blackerby says with a bright smile on his face, “Our issues are definitely challenging, but they are all very enjoyable.”
One thing is certain: Astroscale has significant potential and the team is ready to solve an issue that will have positive impacts for all humankind.
KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu wa uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).