Astroscale's ADRAS-J mission, to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron in 2023, will rendezvous with an inspect an upper stage from a Japanese rocket left in orbit. Credit: Astroscale

WASHINGTON — Astroscale signed an agreement with the government of New Zealand Nov. 10 to study advanced concepts for orbital debris removal.

The Tokyo-based company signed a memorandum of understanding with New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment (MBIE) in a virtual event. The agreement broadly covers cooperation on space safety and sustainability, with an initial project examining approaches for a single servicing spacecraft to remove up to three debris objects on a single mission.

“The multi-object active debris removal mission is really challenging,” Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer of Astroscale, said at the event, because of the need to identify several objects in different orbits within the range of a servicing spacecraft. “You only have so much fuel on board and only so much time before your spacecraft ages, so coming up with those optimal solutions is going to be a core part of being able to solve this problem.”

Astroscale will carry out the study with Rocket Lab and Te Pūnaha Ātea–Auckland Space Institute, examining both technical and policy issues. That could include the use of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus to support such debris removal missions. “We’re interested in their ability to provide lots of thrust and lots of impulse to remove debris,” he said.

For New Zealand, the project is part of efforts by the government to diversify its space activities beyond its original and most visible role as a regulator for Rocket Lab. “What else could we do with our regulatory systems, with the fact that, for a team with five million people, we’re pretty quick and innovative,” said Paul Stocks, deputy secretary for labour, science and enterprise at MBIE and head of the New Zealand Space Agency, at the event.

That’s included other efforts related to both the space and terrestrial environment, from working with LeoLabs on space tracking radars located in the country to partnering on MethaneSAT, a spacecraft that will track methane emissions. “The idea of sustainability and looking out for the environment, whether it’s on the ground or in the sky, speaks really, really loudly to New Zealanders,” he said. This new project “really aligns with our vision for we expect our space agency to look like and our space industry to look like.”

New Zealand is the latest in a series of governments that Astroscale has been working with on development of satellite servicing and active debris removal technologies. Astroscale has a contract with the Japanese space agency JAXA for a mission to perform an inspection of an upper stage left in orbit from a Japanese launch, a precursor to a later mission to deorbit the stage. That mission will be launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket in 2023.

Astroscale also won a contract from the U.K. Space Agency Oct. 26 to study the removal of two defunct satellites from low Earth orbit by 2025. Astroscale is partnering with European satellite maker Thales Alenia Space and MDA, the Canadian robotics and satellite systems specialist, for that study.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...