NASA awards startup $850,000 to develop space debris capture bag

NASA awarded space logistics startup TransAstra a contract to develop an inflatable capture bag capable of transporting orbital debris and asteroids.
Chris Young
An artist's render of orbital debris.
An artist's render of orbital debris.

janiecbros / iStock 

Space logistics company TransAstra won a NASA contract to develop its space debris-catching technology, a report from SpaceNews reveals.

The new contract was awarded under the Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research program.

TransAstra was awarded $850,000 to help it build an inflatable capture bag and test its technology in a ground demonstration.

Capturing space debris in a bag

TransAstra's space debris-catching bag builds on technology developed by NASA for its Asteroid Redirect Mission.

It is designed to envelop the target debris before using inflatable struts to close the bag, allowing a small spacecraft to ferry it into a different orbit or toward reentry into Earth's atmosphere. TransAstra proposes using its small spacecraft, Worker Bee, to capture targets using the bag technology.

In an interview with SpaceNews, TransAstra founder and CEO Joel Sercel explained, "We originally developed this small capture bag prototype to demonstrate asteroid mining in low-Earth orbit with a synthetic asteroid. But we subsequently realized this is the greatest thing ever for orbital debris cleanup."

TransAstra believes it can one day deploy smaller bags to retrieve CubeSats as well as larger ones for rocket parts and even asteroids weighing as much as 50,000 tons. The company also proposes missions that would capture several targets using a single bag.

The benefit of the bag technology over other methods is that "it doesn’t require the target to have any fixture that you can grab onto," Sercel told SpaceNews. "It [also] does not require docking, which is a precision maneuver. You have to be precise enough to open the bag, get the bag around this thing and close the bag."

The space debris problem

TransAstra has also worked alongside space startup ThinkOrbital to study a potential method for transporting debris to an on-orbit processing plant.

The companies recently released a study showing that an on-orbit processing plant could result in a six-fold cost reduction compared with the cost of transporting objects toward a reentry into Earth's atmosphere. What's more, it also reduced the time required to clear debris by about 40 percent.

The space debris problem will continue to grow as more and more satellites and spacecraft are lifted into Earth's orbit. In fact, the dramatic rise in orbital debris over the last few years means we may be closer to seeing a disastrous Kessler Syndrome scenario unfold.

In an interview with Interesting Engineering last year, University of Regina astronomer Dr. Samantha Lawler explained that SpaceX's Starlink constellation has us "right on the edge" of Kessler Syndrome. This could drastically affect astronomical operations as it would appear like we are "inside a snow globe within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset."

What's more, Lawler said that any cleanup project would be comparable to "collecting bullets" due to the incredibly high speeds at which pieces of debris fly around orbit.

Companies like TransAstra are developing solutions, but they are still unproven technologies. In fact, Swiss company ClearSpace and the European Space Agency recently announced their debris cleanup mission may be delayed. The reason? Their target debris had been impacted by one of the thousands of pieces of space debris zipping around Earth's orbit.

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