This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit

Clare Martin of Astroscale discusses the “throwaway” culture in space, how satellite companies can be more responsible, and its upcoming services.
Deena Theresa
ELSA-d mission.

Astroscale 

  • More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are hovering around in space.
  • Space cleanup company Astroscale's space junk servicer test hopes to change that.
  • All of its missions have a docking plate on themselves.

A piece of space debris floating free in orbit. But this is no ordinary space junk. It arrived in space along with another spacecraft, ELSA-d, for a trial run.

A capture mechanism extends out of the "servicer" ELSA-d, which initiates thrust to travel toward the "client" debris. Within minutes, the debris and the mechanism make contact. In the blink of an eye, the two are locked together by a magnetic grapple. They will descend together and burn up in the atmosphere.

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The "chaser" spacecraft is a demonstration of the End-of-Life Services that space debris removal start-up Astroscale hopes to provide. The demonstration, called ELSA-d, included the successful completion of controlled close-approach rendezvous operations in orbit, despite several unexpected setbacks.

The brainchild of Nobu Okada, Astroscale has taken the lead in developing the essential technology and establishing regulations to clear space junk and ensure the responsible use of space. While headquartered in Japan, it has subsidiaries in the U.K., the U.S., Israel, and Singapore.

Its service satellite is equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism. According to the Astroscale website, the client satellite is a piece of replica debris fitted with a ferromagnetic plate that enables docking. The servicer is no ordinary one; it will repeatedly release and dock with the client in a series of technical demonstrations, proving the capability to find and dock with defunct satellites and other debris.

The project is a pressing priority.

This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit
Space junk orbiting around earth.

According to NASA, more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are currently being tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors. Much more debris — too small to be tracked, but large enough to damage both crewed and uncrewed missions — exist in near-Earth orbit. Even a tiny piece of orbital debris can pose a colossal threat to space vehicles, including the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The "throwaway" culture in space is a global problem. Recently, Federal Communications Commission chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed new rules that would require operators of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to deorbit their satellites within five years of completing their missions. The full commission will consider the proposal on September 29. If adopted, the rules could shorten the existing 25-year guideline for de-orbiting satellites after they’re no longer functioning.

Meanwhile, Astroscale will harness what it has learned from ELSA-d's test runs to deliver ELSA-M, which would be capable of capturing multiple defunct LEO satellites in a single mission.

The 'space junk servicer' test, partnered with broadband satellite provider OneWeb, will launch in late 2024.

Interesting Engineering sat down with Clare Martin, executive vice president, Astroscale U.S., to talk about the widely debated issue of space junk, Astroscale's bold ambitions and unique positioning as the lead in a similar group of growing startups, and how the problem can be resolved.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: Space junk is an international problem. Who do you think should pay for debris removal?

Clare Martin: That's a very good question. Right now, we're in the very early stages of developing this technology. Within Astroscale, we are encouraging government supporters with technology demonstrations to become early adopters to help — whether that's an End-of-Life type service or an ADR (Active Debris Removal) mission. The initial step once the technology is demonstrated is that we'll start to see the market emerge when people understand its actual commercial benefits. Because it reduces your operational risk if you are a large constellation operator, for example. It's a little bit like what OneWeb is doing now, taking steps forward to look at commercial engagement as well as government engagement.

But at the moment, there's great interest and support around the world. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) is supporting a path to an ADR mission, both UK Space Agency and the European Space agencies are as well. And the U.S. government is also moving down this path. So we're starting to see a lot more traction from governments to support this technology development and demonstration.

IE: What would be affected if the Kessler Syndrome’s worst predictions came true?

CM: If the worst predictions came true, and we entered that runaway effect that you can get with the Kessler syndrome, then orbits would become unusable. Our vision is to create a safe and sustainable space, an environment for future generations. And to do that, we have to start now. We can't wait for the Kessler syndrome to enter a runaway situation. So the purpose of every element of work that we do within Astroscale is to focus on how we make space sustainable and to introduce services like the End-of-Life service that our U.K. counterparts are working on so that we start to change the mindset of how you can use the space environment.

This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit
The making of ELSA-d.

IE: Tell me about ELSA-M. When do you think Astroscales' debris removal services can commence operation?

CM: Our ELSA-d demonstration successfully ticked a whole number of boxes for us in being the first to do commercial RPO (Rendezvous and Proximity Operations) on orbit. ELSA-M, which is being led out of our U.K. office, stands for End-of-Life Servicer Multi-Client. So that is a program that the U.K. team is working on in conjunction with OneWeb and the European Space Agency. It's a classic type of public-private partnership. The spacecraft is in the detailed design phase now in the U.K. The team there is working very hard to get that launched in 2024. It will be able to service up to three OneWeb spacecraft and bring them back down and allow them to be burned up in the Earth's atmosphere.

IE: The ELSA missions employ magnetic capture, correct?

CM: The ELSA missions do use magnetic capture. The client vehicle has been installed upon a docking plate which includes the required markers to enable the RPO approach. But, Astroscale, as a whole company based around the world, recognizes that you probably need different technology solutions, depending on what the object is. So we actually do quite a lot of work on robotics as well. And that's happening in Astroscale Japan. And also, through the U.S. and Israeli teams, we are looking at our life extension machine, we're actually working on robotic docking arms.

IE: Why was the system chosen over inflatables or nets?

CM: The magnetic capture that we use is really clean and very easy - it doesn't require a lot on the side of the client to prepare for it. And it is a noninvasive approach and we don't damage the client's vehicle. If you use something like a net that is thrown over the top of a spacecraft, you will very likely be damaging the antenna or thruster, and the spacecraft wouldn't be usable again afterward. With the magnetic docking technology, you can also think of it not just in terms of debris disposal into Earth's atmosphere, but on orbit, servicing writ large, because it's a nonintrusive way of docking.

IE: Are there any apprehensions about ELSA-M?

CM: Aside from the usual engineering design? Yeah. No, I mean, we're very much looking forward to it. The U.K. government is incredibly supportive to bring this into service. And they work very closely with our Astroscale colleagues in the U.K., to bring this service into a reality. So there are no apprehensions, we're all looking very much looking forward to bringing ELSA-M to reality and starting to do the demonstrations with OneWeb.

This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit
ELSA-d mission.

IE: How can Astroscale missions mitigate their own debris during operation?

CM: So all of the missions that we launched had a docking plate on themselves. So that, you know, we are preparing ourselves for our own service later, should it be required. We, of course, design and develop to all of the leading standards for space missions to make sure that we are living by the best practices that we support. We make sure we have enough fuel for the orbit of our emissions as well.

IE: How will the junk be disposed of?

CM: Down the road, well, Astroscale is looking across several solutions and trying to think more broadly than just disposing of an object in the atmosphere. So if you think of changing the mindset of everything you could do in orbit, you could move away from what we have now, which is a very throwaway culture. In space, you design it, you build it, you launch it, you use it, and then you get rid of it, or you abandon it. But you know, what could you do if you could maintain it? Or upgrade it? Or repair it, move it in the future? Can we recycle it? Or can we repurpose it? So we're very active within this new on-orbit servicing ecosystem in talking to other companies to think of new ways that we can approach this.

This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit
A 3D render of waste from broken artificial satellites floating in orbit in space around planet Earth.

IE: How can Astroscale go about de-orbiting spent rocket bodies?

CM: Our Japanese team is actually working on it. There is a program from JAXA called CRD2 - a two-stage mission whose ultimate end goal is to remove the spent rocket body from orbit. So the first stage is very much an inspection mission and is due to launch in Japanese fiscal year [20]22. And that's going to go and assess the state of the object because once it's been in orbit for a very long time, there will be some degradation of materials and we have to assess its spin rate and where you can safely dock with it. So that's the purpose of the first mission, and that data and information will feed into the second stage. That second mission will go up and capture that client's rocket body and safely bring it back down. So we're on that one.

IE: How do you propose removing debris that is too small to be tracked?

CM: The technology to remove them - we don't actually have a very good solution for that yet writ large within the industry. In your reading data, I'm sure you came across people, perhaps talking about using lasers to oblate. The first thing we have to be able to do with those objects is to get more reliable information and see if we can track them. So that wouldn't be really from the ground at this point, you're perhaps looking at on-orbit space, situational awareness assets, or you're looking at work like LEO labs do by using radars on the ground because that allows you to get to a much smaller size. So if we can improve our knowledge through SSA (Space Situational Awareness) of what these objects are and how they behave, then that will be the first step towards making them less of a concern.

IE: Since 2019, the number of working satellites in orbit has increased by 50 percent, and will only surge in the future. Can a balance be created between what is generated and removed?

CM: Yes, absolutely. That is what we're here for. But I think I mean, space is just so vital to everything we do on the Earth now. It's involved in our communications, our banking, and our understanding of our climate. We should not be afraid to keep enhancing our lives on Earth by using what we have in space. So by thinking in terms of on-orbit servicing and logistics, and the responsible behaviors, that we're encouraging, as are others, you can absolutely achieve that balance.

This space debris removal company is on a singular mission to clean Earth's orbit
ADRAS-J mission.

IE: With satellite launch and construction costs continuing to fall, more people (even those with little experience) can get satellites up. How can individuals or companies act responsibly when it comes to satellite operation?

CM: A very simple thing they can do now is to open their mind to what could be possible in the future. So if you try to move away from the throwaway culture and consider putting a docking plate on — just consider preparing it, it's very nonintrusive, affordable, easy to assemble, you don't even have to commit to how you would use it — but you're preparing yourself to be able to use these future services that could help you.

And then one of the big things that Astroscale supports and endorses — and what I think we really did demonstrate very well with our LCD mission — is transparency. If you have an anomaly, be open about it. Obviously, all space agencies - India, U.K., etc., have licensing regimes. And those regimes need to be able to keep up and evolve a little bit with the times in which everyone is working on. So keeping up with those licensing regimes from the regulatory side, encouraging operators to prepare for service in the future, and being very transparent in what they are doing.

IE: Would it be possible to explain to our readers what's next for Astroscale?

CM: Oh, yes, of course. So obviously, we've had a successful ELSA-D demonstration. And then the next launch for us is ADRAS J, which is the inspection mission portion of CRD2, on a Rocket Lab electron vehicle. And then the next launch planned after that will be ELSA-M. And then the year after, there will be the life extension mission that comes out of the US and Israel, designed for GEO. So that is a Geospacecraft service designed to extend the life of assets, therefore, avoiding having to replace them early and avoiding the risk of depleting your fuel to dangerous levels. Those are the next three missions. And we always have more ideas and more plans. So there's plenty coming.