ELSA-d target spacecraft
The ELSA-d target spacecraft, to be built by SSTL, will be released and captured by Astroscale's "chaser" spacecraft as a test of orbital debris removal technologies. Credit: SSTL

LONDON — Astroscale, a company developing technologies for removing orbital debris, announced Nov. 21 it has awarded a contract to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) to develop one part of an upcoming demonstration mission.

In a ceremony during a Royal Aeronautical Society conference here on the commercialization of space, leaders of the two companies signed the contract for the target spacecraft that will be used on the End-of-Life Service by Astroscale demonstration, or ELSA-d, mission launching in the first half of 2019. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

The SSTL-built target spacecraft will launch attached to a larger “chaser” spacecraft built by Astroscale. After entering orbit, the target will be released to test the ability of the chaser spacecraft to rendezvous and capture it, both when the target spacecraft is stable as well as when it is tumbling. After completing the tests, the chaser will capture the target a final time and the combined spacecraft will deorbit.

The target spacecraft will be based on the SSTL-42 bus, said Sir Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of SSTL, at the ceremony. That bus, intended for spacecraft weighing no more than 100 kilograms, will carry communications and navigation payloads, and also have a high-definition camera to record capture attempts.

“It builds upon the very close relationship that we’ve been building up in recent years between the two companies,” Sweeting said of the contract.

The contract is part of a broader memorandum of understanding also announced at the conference to jointly work together on orbital debris removal and other smallsat missions. “We will jointly identify and capture the space debris removal market,” said Nobu Okada, chief executive of Astroscale. “We will jointly offer small satellite missions in Japan.”

ELSA-d will demonstrate technologies that Okada said the company plans to offer to operators of large satellite constellations. Such a system could handle the removal of malfunctioning satellites from orbit that lack the ability to deorbit themselves, addressing some of the concerns in the space industry about how such constellations could exacerbate the orbital debris problem.

That approach could address one of the non-technical challenges associated with orbital debris removal: figuring out who will pay for such a service. “I was told there was no market for space debris removal,” Okada said during a panel discussion at the conference on orbital debris. Constellations, he said, could provide that market. “Someone has to retrieve your defunct satellites. That’s our job.”

The technology developed for removing satellites in constellations could later be expanded to dealing with other debris, such as other defunct satellites or upper stages. Such objects pose the risk of fragmenting into many smaller debris objects, increasing the risks of collisions, particularly in crowded orbital regimes like sun-synchronous orbit.

“End-of-life services for constellations will provide a practical contribution to active debris removal in terms of technological maturity and regulatory maturity,” Okada said.

Astroscale, headquartered in Singapore and with an R&D center in Japan, opened an office in the U.K. earlier this year. Okada said Astroscale’s presence in the country will grow to include a mission control center for its spacecraft. The company will likely use the U.K. for licensing its systems, a choice which he attributed to the maturity of the country’s regulatory system for spacecraft.

The announcement comes while the British space industry is looking to enhance its international standing as the country’s impending withdrawal jeopardizes its ability to participate in European Union programs like Galileo and Copernicus.

“International collaboration in space is really important,” Sweeting said, “and the U.K. is an attractive place for space business.”

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...