Astroscale gets funds for 2024 debris-removal mission

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TAMPA, Fla. — Astroscale has secured European Space Agency funding for a 2024 demo mission to remove what will likely be a OneWeb satellite.

The debris-removal startup said May 27 that the 15 million euro ($16 million) funding enables it to complete the design of its ELSA-m servicer spacecraft, progressing through manufacturing up to the satellite pre-integration phase. 

Astroscale plans to launch a commercial de-orbit service for satellite operators after that.

The Japanese startup’s British subsidiary Astroscale Ltd. and U.K-based partners secured the funds from the U.K. Space Agency via OneWeb, which has a public-private partnership with UKSA and ESA under ESA’s Sunrise program.

However, it is too early to say which satellite will be part of the ELSA-m demonstration mission, according to Astroscale, or whether it will come from OneWeb’s low Earth orbit constellation.

The servicer for ELSA-m, or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-multiple, is designed to de-orbit more than one satellite in a single mission. 

Astroscale Ltd. managing director John Auburn told SpaceNews the servicer could attempt to remove another spacecraft after its primary mission in 2024.

That would mark the Astroscale’s first commercial mission, although Auburn stressed the venture has not yet covered all ELSA-m’s funding needs.

An Astroscale spokesperson said the $15 million funding covers around a third of the cost to design and manufacture ELSA-m. The remaining costs will be funded from Astroscale’s own resources.

Astroscale announced Nov. 25 that it had received $109 million in its latest funding round, bringing the total amount raised from venture capital to $300 million.

ESA’s Council of Ministers is due to convene in November, where they are set to discuss proposals that include providing more funding to move the ELSA-m demo toward assembly, integration, verification and ultimately launch and operations.

Last year, the Sunrise program awarded a OneWeb-led group about $45 million to launch a beam-hopping satellite in 2022 called Joey-Sat, which aimed to demonstrate how a satellite could switch its coverage area in real-time to respond to surges in demand.

Astroscale got about $3.2 million as part of that funding to start developing technologies that could safely de-orbit satellites like Joey-Sat.

Joey-Sat has not yet launched, and U.K.-based OneWeb was forced to pause the deployment of its broadband satellites in March amid sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

OneWeb has deployed 428 satellites, or 66% of its planned total fleet to date, and has signed launch agreements with SpaceX and India’s space agency to resume satellite deployments this year.

In November, OneWeb said it was considering options to de-orbit a satellite that failed due to a software issue soon after reaching its 1,200-kilometer orbit in 2020. 

Auburn said the majority of OneWeb satellites have magnetic docking plates that are compatible with ELSA-m’s capture mechanism.

He said Astroscale is continuing to talk to other constellation operators about fitting compatible docking plates on their future satellites. 

Astroscale’s ELSA-d, or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration, released and re-captured a tiny LEO satellite with a docking plate in an August test.

The 175-kilogram ELSA-d servicer and 17-kilogram client have been helping Astroscale validate its technologies in orbit. 

However, the servicer lost half of its eight thrusters as it was preparing another capture attempt early this year with less direct support from ground operators.

Despite the thruster problem, the servicer was able to make a close-approach rendezvous with the client in April, before backing away about 300 kilometers while Astroscale decides whether to proceed with original plans to de-orbit the client.

Auburn said ELSA-d has probably already done enough to pave the way for ELSA-m.

“We’ve learned an enormous amount,” he said, including how solar weather can influence the trajectory of two spacecraft differently.

The satellite ELSA-m seeks to capture will likely be much larger than ELSA-d’s client. 

ELSA-m will have a mass of “a few hundred kilos,” an Astroscale spokesperson said, and is designed to capture multiple clients of up to 800 kilograms.

A OneWeb broadband satellite is about the size of a mini-fridge and weighs roughly 150 kilograms.