SAN FRANCISCO — Within a year, Astroscale plans to begin a complex series of demonstrations to show the startup’s spacecraft can grab a piece of space debris and dispose of it in the atmosphere.
If the 2020 End-of-Life Service by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission is successful, it could prompt satellite operators to begin designing spacecraft for in-orbit retrieval and convince space agencies and constellation operators to set aside funding for the service, said Chris Blackerby, Astroscale chief operating officer and Japan director.
“When I was with NASA, debris was a concern but many people didn’t believe it was possible to have a viable commercial enterprise focused on debris removal,” said Blackerby, who led NASA’s Asia team and served as NASA’s attaché at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. “It’s an exciting time to be part of the industry making this happen.”
Tokyo-based Astroscale may conduct the first commercial debris-removal mission but it’s not alone in seeing cleaning up low Earth orbit as a worthwhile activity and a promising business venture.
ClearSpace of Switzerland has similar goals. The startup, established in December 2017, is a spinoff of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the university that was leading the Swiss Space Agency’s campaign to demonstrate active debris removal by capturing SwissCube-1, a cubesat launched in 2009.
Before the European Space Agency tapped ClearSpace to retrieve a rocket component, the company was focused on the CleanSpace-1 mission, shown here. Engineers were developing technology to capture a Swiss cubesat launched in 2009. Credit: ClearSpace
ClearSpace was raising money, establishing partnerships and developing technology for the mission, called CleanSpace-1 in late 2018 when ESA released an invitation to tender, similar to a request for proposals, for active debris removal. As part of the tender process, ESA published a list of its own debris its own missions had created and asked teams to propose demonstration missions to retrieve object and to present business models for active debris removal service or in-orbit satellite servicing.
After an extensive review process, ESA selected ClearSpace from a field of about a dozen competitors including European aerospace prime contractors who went head-to-head with ClearSpace in the final round of the competition.
“When ESA called to tell us that we were selected, the complete team fell silent for a few seconds,” said Luc Piguet, ClearSpace CEO and co-founder.
The next hurdle is funding. ESA member states will discuss the project and some may offer financial support during the ESA Ministerial conference in Seville, Spain, in November. If it wins support, ClearSpace will “consolidate its consortium and initiate the ClearSpace-1 mission. The mission, scheduled to launch in 2025, involves capturing VESPA, a Vega rocket secondary payload adapter, and disposing of it in Earth’s atmosphere.
“We are quite confident that the member states will support our mission because it is addressing a key issue for the space industry as a whole from a commercial perspective,” Piguet said.
This is all part of a sea change. For years, entrepreneurs, established space companies and international space agencies were reluctant to focus significant energy or resources on active debris removal because of legal, technical and business concerns.
Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, nations retain permanent ownership of anything they send into orbit. As a result, ESA ClearSpace-1 mission is aimed at capturing an ESA rocket component.
Astroscale will comply with the Outer Space Treaty by capturing its own dummy satellite. If all goes as planned, Astroscale will launch two spacecraft next year: a 180-kilogram spacecraft designed to catch debris and 20-kilogram satellite to act as space debris. Once in orbit at an altitude of 500 to 600 kilometers, the two satellites will separate and begin a three-part demonstration.
First, the larger satellite will extend a robotic arm with a magnetic surface to latch onto a ferrous metal plate on the outside of the small satellite. Next, Astroscale will separate the two spacecraft a second time and make the small satellite tumble. Then, the large satellite will line up with it, synchronize its motion, find the ferrous plate and dock with it. Finally, Astroscale will send the small satellite beyond the range of the larger satellite’s onboard cameras.
“We are going to intentionally lose it,” Blackerby said. “Then, we’re going to use ground-based and onboard cameras to find that piece of dummy debris and attached to it a third time.”
Once the demonstration concludes, Astroscale plans to move the linked satellites to a lower orbit, setting the stage for both to burn up when they reenter the atmosphere.
“Hopefully, that will make the industry see this is technically possible,” Blackerby said. “But we also have to prove the business case and work within the regulatory environment. We have to work on all three of these issues to simultaneously.”
In terms of business case, Astroscale has a head start. Since it was founded in 2013, Astroscale has raised about $140 million.
“It shows investors have a lot of confidence in us,” Blackerby said. “We’re happy about it.”
Still, Astroscale is taking on a daunting challenge. To be cost-effective an active debris removal service would need to grab multiple pieces of debris.“We need to grab a piece of debris, bring it down to a lower orbit, release it and head back up,” Blackerby said. That type of mission will require a larger satellite with more powerful propulsion than the demonstration mission, he added.
ClearSpace receives research and technical support from the EPFL Space Center. ClearSpace also is part of the ESA Business Incubation Center in Switzerland and the company received a 1.4 million Swiss franc grant from InnoSwiss, the Swiss innovation agency.
“So far it has been business angels, people like myself putting in money to what appeared at the time to be a bit of a moon shot and turned out to be a very tangible business concept and opportunity,” said Ivo Petrov, a ClearSpace investor and one of its directors. “Going forward, the company will continue to rely on private funding and sponsored partnerships. We are having discussions with a number of global brands. Clearly there is a great opportunity that has to do with sustainable development and responsible space operations.”
Both Astroscale and ClearSpace also won contracts to participate in the Sunrise Project, a public-private partnership led by OneWeb and ESA to explore advanced technologies for future telecommunications satellites including active debris removal.
Already, there are roughly 3,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit, including defunct satellites and spent rocket stages. Low Earth orbit, specifically, is about to get more crowded as companies prepare to send thousands of satellites into constellations designed to offer broadband access throughout the world.
Later this year, OneWeb plans to begin launching its global broadband constellation with as many as 1,980 satellites. SpaceX sent the first 60 satellites into orbit in May for Starlink, a broadband constellation that eventually could include nearly 12,000 satellites. Amazon asked the International Telecommunications Union for spectrum rights for 3,236 Kuiper satellites.
Astroscale see the constellation operators as important, consistent customers for companies that can capture defunct satellites and move them out of a constellation’s orbit, Blackerby said.
Similarly, ClearSpace “opened communication channels with all the constellation operators that we know of to make sure that whatever we develop makes sense for future markets,” Piguet said.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.