Space Force eager to invest in debris removal projects

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Gen. David Thompson: 'Right now the most important thing we and others can do is stop making the problem worse'

HERNDON, Va. — It’s not the job of the U.S. Space Force to clean up orbital debris. However the military wants to partner with private companies that can perform that service and help cultivate that sector of the industry, vice chief of space operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson said Feb. 10. 

Speaking at an AFCEA information technology event, Thompson said he frequently is asked about the growing hazards in space caused by debris and his answer is that “it’s a hard problem.” That said, “right now the most important thing we and others can do is stop making the problem worse.”

There are other ways the Space Force can contribute, Thompson added. “Ultimately, the Space Force does not want to be in the business of cleaning up debris.” However, “we would certainly love to partner with innovative new companies, or even innovative old companies, to develop ideas and technologies, and help in some way shape or form.”

Thompson plugged Orbital Prime, a new effort by SpaceWERX, the Space Force’s technology arm, to invest in debris-removal and in-space servicing technologies. Bids for Orbital Prime contracts close Feb. 17.

Orbital Prime in the first round will award $250,000 study contracts for technologies focused on satellite life extension, refueling, on-orbit inspection, orbit transfer, active debris removal, reuse and recycling of materials in space. Winners can compete for a second round of $1.5 million contracts to prototype systems.

There is no guarantee of success, said Thompson, “but maybe we can help foster and stimulate this new segment of the market. And who knows, maybe in the future there’ll be a market for some company or companies to go after.”

The Space Force also is reviewing its routine practices in an effort to generate less debris. “That starts with how you launch and field space capabilities,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of debris we produce just in the simple act of putting satellites into orbit and deploying them into space.”

Thompson said destructive anti-satellite tests are especially egregious. He noted that there are still 3,000 debris objects from China’s 2007 test. Russia blew up one of its defunct satellites in November over the North Pole, he said, which means the debris cloud will circle over the poles for years, endangering satellites and space missions.