Q&A | Astroscale’s Chris Blackerby aims to turn a profit by cleaning up space

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 Astroscale is creating a service the space industry knows it needs even if there’s disagreement over who should pay for it.

Removing out-of-commission satellites from orbit — including pre-planned de-orbits and unplanned but important debris removal — form the crux of Astroscale’s business plan. The company’s two satellites, IDEA (in-situ debris environmental awareness) OSG-1 to monitor debris and ELSA-d (end-of-life service by Astroscale-demonstration) to demonstrate de-orbit procedures, are scheduled to launch in 2018 and 2019, respectively. IDEA OSG-1 is manifested on a Glavkosmos Soyuz. 

Investors have backed Astroscale’s vision to the tune of $53 million, showing meaningful confidence in the four-year-old company’s ability to clean up literally and financially.  

Chris Blackerby Astroscale
Chris Blackerby, chief operating officer, Astroscale. Credit: Astroscale.

Several of those investors, including ANA Holdings, OSG Corp. and Yuki Precision Co., are Japanese tech-powers, with skills that will help Astroscale, whose research and development center is located in Tokyo, with more than just financial support.

Chris Blackerby, NASA’s Tokyo-based attaché for five years, became the company’s chief operating officer last month. Blackerby leads Astroscale’s Tokyo office as well as global strategic development.

Astroscale numbers about 30 people between Singapore, Tokyo and London, and will be adding a few more people in the near future, he says. Blackerby spoke to SpaceNews about how Astroscale plans to bring a profitable solution to the space industry’s “tragedy of the commons” debris problem.

From Astroscale’s perspective, how do you make space debris mitigation profitable?

When I first heard about Astroscale I thought “this is a great concept, but how is it going to make money?” I think that’s one of the overriding issues that we as a company have to deal with. Bringing technology that’s able to do this, make a business case, and then deal with any regulatory issues that might come up, they are all intertwined.

As far as the business case, one of the things we are looking at now for our second launch, the ELSA-d launch in the next couple of years, is to work with some of the mega-constellation players. A certain percentage of the satellites they launch — which will be in the hundreds for some and thousands for others — are going to go defunct before the planned end of mission, let’s say five to 10 percent. Of those, we want to be able to provide a service that brings those out of commission as soon as possible. This provides more mission assurance for these companies in question and for the rest of us who are using the orbital environment.

GEO doesn’t have mega-constellations, but the real estate is arguably more valuable.

And it’s still going to be tough. That is the next step we need to think about — how to do that. We are first talking about end of life services, but the next step we have is active debris removal. The business for that, which takes into account higher orbits, is tough to articulate. In our first step we will focus on these mega-constellations, then we will focus on other possibilities.

Active debris removal is a tragedy of the commons issue, so in that case it is something nations should get behind as well, and consortiums of nations and the UN to say we need to make space a sustainable environment in the future, and we need to put regulations in place to make sure it’s usable going forward … showing that there is a business case to be made is difficult, but the more congested an environment gets, and the more valuable the real estate is, the more imperative it is to make sure it’s usable.

Astroscale has raised about $53 million from a wide range of investors. Is Astroscale continuing to raise capital?

There’s not a plan to do a big next series right now, but we are still looking for opportunities for finding more capital.

What does Astroscale hope to accomplish in your first mission?

We are going to be measuring submillimeter [100 micro-meter] debris. We are going to look at the smallest pieces of debris. Right now we do not have a good map of what exists in LEO of that size. What we would like is to better understand that full environment.

There are three steps when you think about cleaning up the orbital environment. First is to know what’s up there, second is don’t put any new debris into orbit and then third is to remove the debris that’s already there. In a rough way, that is what we are going to do.

How does ELSA-d work?

Our plan is to use magnets. The ELSA-d mission is going to have a chaser satellite and a target satellite launched together. The target will separate from the chaser, and then the chaser is going to approach it and attach to it using high-performance magnets that we have developed. They will separate, do it again, and then the target will tumble, and we will attach another time. We will demonstrate the rendezvous technology.

We will work with mega-constellation players to attach magnetized plates to their mission, and we would attach to those magnetized plates.

Your customers will have to have those magnetized plates before they launch?

Yes. For providing end of life services, this is where we make the distinction between end of life services and active debris removal. For end of life, customers would have to have this docking plate before launch.

How much mass would a plate require?

We are planning for it to be extremely light, thin and minimally intrusive, on the order of a couple hundred grams.

Will OSG-1 be a standalone satellite, or the beginning of a fleet?

We don’t have plans for an OSG-2 at this point, but we want to continue thinking about options for space situational awareness.

What is the design life of IDEA OSG-1?

The planned mission life is two years.

After ELSA-d completes its demonstration, will it send the test craft down into the atmosphere and then return for more missions?

The plan is for ELSA-d and future iterations to pull the debris out and move it to a graveyard orbit or move it down to degrade into the atmosphere … issues of fuel and cost make repeat missions tough.

Liability for accidents is a big discussion with end of life and active debris removal services. What would Astroscale do in a scenario where a satellite is damaged or more debris is created?

That would be bad, and a worst, worst case scenario. We have insurance for the various stages of launch and operations, but that would be pretty bad for the company so we are not going to let that happen.

Are you finding support from the space agencies where Astroscale has offices?

Yes we are. I can’t get into too many details now, but I would say that we are talking to all of those places. Being in Japan, JAXA and other related government agencies and ministries have all expressed strong support for what we are doing. We are talking to them about working together.

There is support in the U.K. as well. The U.K. and Japan are talking now about general U.K.-Japan cooperation overall and space is one of the discussions. We are looking for opportunities there.

NASA has a small office focused on space debris and we are in contact with them, and we are talking to ESA as well.