Astroscale's ELSA-d spacecraft, designed to demonstrate technologies to approach and capture orbital debris, is under development for launch in 2020. Credit: Astroscale

LOS ANGELES — Astroscale, a Japanese company that recently stood up an American subsidiary, sees the U.S. military as a potential customer for the company’s debris removal and other in-orbit services.

Astroscale is preparing to demonstrate satellite de-orbiting technology in low Earth orbit next year and is talking to potential commercial and government customers, Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Denver-based Astroscale U.S. Inc., told SpaceNews.

Lopez discussed the technology with officials from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center during an industry conference that SMC hosted here this week to gather information about emerging technologies being developed by the space industry.

The Air Force said about 30 companies submitted white papers in response to a “request for information” from SMC on space industry capabilities ranging from launch vehicles to satellites and in-space services. The companies were invited to Los Angeles for one-on-one briefings with SMC officials. The information provided by vendors will inform a two-year National Security Launch Architecture (NSLA) study that SMC started to get better insight into the technologies and investments happening in the space industry.

“The NSLA is very exciting,” Lopez said. “The Air Force is talking about safety, congestion and how that affects resilience. This is the first real sign that the acquisition machine is moving in that direction.”

Astroscale’s focus is debris removal but the company sees spin-off applications that could be useful to the military, such as moving satellites on short notice. “You might need to maneuver satellites for a variety of reasons,” said Lopez, a former Air Force officer and longtime defense industry executive. “Maneuver is key to resiliency.”

If the military deploys communications satellites in LEO, for example, it may decide that the satellite should be moved to improve coverage in other areas, he said. Orbital altitude or orbital plane changes are services that the private sector can provide, he added. “If you only rely on fuel you have on board you’re limiting the useful life of the satellite. You don’t have to make that tradeoff any more. You can outsource the service to move the satellite to where it needs to be.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...