Former Finance Wonk Wants To (Literally) Clean Up in Space
Profile | Nobu Okada
Founder and Chief Executive, Astroscale
Rising to the Challenge of Debris
As a teenager in 1988, Nobu Okada traveled from Japan to attend camp at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. While there he met Mamoru Mori, Japan’s first astronaut, who gave him a handwritten message: “Space is waiting for your challenge.”
More than 25 years later, Okada is preparing to tackle one of the most vexing challenges facing space mission planners: the increasing amount of debris in heavily traveled orbits. Through Astroscale, the Singapore-based company he founded in 2013, Okada plans to conduct a spaceflight mission in 2016 called In-situ Debris Environmental Awareness (IDEA) to gather detailed information on the tiny satellite and rocket fragments that pose a threat to spacecraft. In 2017, Astroscale plans to launch its first Active Debris Removal by Astroscale (ADRAS) mission to demonstrate technology to clean up debris.
Before founding Astroscale, Okada worked for Japan’s Ministry of Finance, BainCapital and McKinsey & Co., the New York-based management consulting firm. He also founded two Internet startups.
Okada spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What made you found Astroscale?
I had a kind of a mid-career crisis. I was wondering what I should do in my 40s when I looked at the handwritten message from Mr. Mori and remembered that I had a strong passion for space when I was 15. I thought perhaps I should say goodbye to the software industry and jump into the space industry, which is a mix of hardware and software.
Why are you focusing on space debris?
I attended some space conferences when I was in the information technology industry. I learned debris was a growing threat. I saw research and concepts, but I didn’t see action.
In the IT industry, we develop a better version of something in three months. In the space industry, all the discussions focused on, “What shall we do over the next five to 10 years?”
Did that seem too slow?
Yes. The big moment for me occurred at a meeting in Germany in April 2013. All the debris professionals were gathered together, around 300 people. They were still talking about whether technology comes first or funding comes first or regulation comes first. I was frustrated but also quite excited at that moment. I had found an opportunity because nobody had a clear idea how to solve the problem.
What role should governments play in addressing the problem of debris and what role should companies play?
We should stop the never-ending discussion on what comes first. Our company will invest money to prove the solution. After that, we should have an international framework and governments should allocate some funding to the pool to remove space debris.
What progress have you made since you established Astroscale?
At the beginning, I felt we needed four things: a dream engineering team, a proven solution, initial money and an international framework. We now have a good team with 50 members. We are developing ways to grab the debris and deorbit it. We have raised initial money, and we are on the right track toward an international framework.
What are the technological challenges?
The challenges are approaching a noncooperative target, a way to grab the debris and a way to deorbit the debris. Approaching a noncooperative target is very tough, but by doing the simulation I think we know how to do it. To grab debris, we developed a silicon adhesive compound. It is the right product for the space environment. It is very, very sticky. We also have developed a deorbiting mechanism. We are going to use solid propellant to obtain a large thrust in a short period of time. The difficult part is igniting the solid propellant with accurate timing.
How did you raise money?
Thanks to a project to go to the moon, the Lunar Dream Capsule, we are collecting the dreams from Asian kids and working with Astrobotic Technology to bring those messages to the moon’s surface. The program is sponsored by a drink company, Pocari Sweat.
In January, we also raised $7.7 million in a Series A financing round. We should have at least one more round. Several potential investors are showing interest.
What about the international framework?
When we began two years ago, we were perceived as an extraordinary outsider in the space industry. Now we are perceived as a unique insider in the space industry. We have lots of communication channels with satellite builders, space agencies and government sectors. So we are on the right track.
What is your biggest challenge?
In engineering, it is trade-offs. We have to make decisions every day, every morning, every night. Also financing is not easy because we have to show a business model. There is no market and there are no competitors, which means it’s very hard to find a strategy. But we have some ideas.
Tell me about the first ADRAS mission.
We are planning to launch a demonstration in 2017 composed of an 80-kilogram satellite, called Mother, carrying a 20-kilogram satellite called Boy. In 2017, we will demonstrate our ability to capture an orbital debris target and use a solid fuel thruster to slow its velocity and deorbit it. For future missions, each Mother spacecraft will carry six Boys.
What comes next?
Debris removal is not our only goal. Our mission is to actively contribute to the sustainable use of the space environment. We plan to move into on-orbit servicing after the 2017 demonstration. In ADRAS-1 we will prove key technologies and functions required for on-orbit servicing, diagnostics, tugboat services to move satellites to another orbit, and life extension operations.
What are your plans for IDEA?
Spacecraft have to cope with micro debris, space debris measuring less than 1 millimeter, by shielding spacecraft. The problem is there is no correct data about the distribution or composition of micro debris. We have some information on the 400-kilometer orbit because the International Space Station is there. We don’t know about the most congested area, around 800 kilometers. In the second half of 2016, we will launch IDEA, a 20-kilogram satellite, to collect data on micro debris.
Do you have government funding for IDEA?
A space agency will provide us with sensors to collect data on the micro debris and we will provide our data to the space agency. But we need more money to develop the satellites and launch them. We found private-sector sponsors.
Which space agency?
I can’t tell this.
How will you launch ADRAS-1?
We have not yet disclosed that.
How will you launch IDEA?
We will ride on a Dnepr rocket.