Hundreds of thousands of man-made objects are whizzing around the Earth. Astroscale, led by space environmentalist Nobu Okada, takes on the task of cleaning them up
After a first failed attempt caused by poor weather conditions, Elon Musk’s SpaceX spacecraft, Dragon, took off on May 30, 2020, carrying on board two NASA astronauts. Dubbed a historic launch, it marks the first time a private company had flown people to orbit, initiating a new business model for NASA and opening doors for a myriad of opportunities to explore space.
Amazon, Telestat and Boeing are amongst the companies who’ve announced an intention to launch more than 46,000 satellites in the next few years. This number exceeds by more than five times the amount of objects propelled into space in the last sixty years, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Indeed, advanced exploration of space brings recognizable benefits for humanity, however, every significant technological breakthrough comes hand in hand with a not-so-bright side. With space environment becoming increasingly busier, orbital sustainability emerges as a crucial issue. One of the pressing underlying concerns is the growing problem of space debris, which if not addressed, can lead to disaster.
Space debris — or ‘orbital junk’ — are generally considered to be man-made objects in the Earth orbit, no longer serving any useful purpose. It has been amassing since the launch of the first satellite Sputnik-1 by the Soviet Union in 1957, an event that heralded the start of the Space Age. Since then, the lower orbit of the Earth (altitudes lower than 2,000 km) has become progressively congested with all kinds of trash. Whizzing around the planet are enormous parts of rockets, defunct satellites, small shards of launch hardware, pieces of paint, solid fuel, and even toothbrushes and screwdrivers. More than 23,000 objects have been recorded so far, traveling with the velocity of 20,000km/h.
The risk of collision is high, only resulting in the creation of more debris. If a tiny fleck of paint can make a crack in a spacecraft window, the damage from a bus-sized chunk of a rocket is stratospheric. It’s not unheard of debris crashing into Earth, uncontrolled objects quite literally falling from the sky. Two major space events — the Chinese military’s anti-satellite test in 2007 and the 2009 crash of a defunct Soviet Union-era satellite with an operating U.S. spacecraft — have forced the space industry to become more mindful of the orbital congestion, but since then the amount of objects hasn’t decreased and more accidents have occurred.
Researchers and scientists have been attempting to tackle the issue for years, putting forward theoretical methods for a spacial ‘spring-clean’, whilst detecting, monitoring and cataloguing the vortex of junk. All these efforts remained abstract, until seven years ago a forty-year-old IT entrepreneur from Japan decided to make the cleansing of the space his life mission, creating what is considered to be the first private company to actively engage with the problem.
Nobu Okada, now 47, is the CEO of Astroscale, a company created for one purpose only — the removal of orbital debris through the provision of End of Life (EOL) and Active Debris Removal (ADR) services. His fascination with cosmos began at fifteen years old after he completed a junior program at a U.S. Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.
Despite this early experience cementing his enthusiasm for all things space, in the next twenty-five years, he pursued a path that had nothing to do with his passion. After completing undergraduate and graduate studies in genetics at the University of Tokyo, Mr. Okada built a successful career first as a government official, then in finance, subsequently founding a software company.
In 2013, a realization dawned on him, caused by what he calls a ‘mid-life crisis’, prompting a return to his teenage fascination with space. «I didn’t want to finish my life without being engaged with space somehow, so I began attending international space conferences, learning the hot topics and asking questions». Whilst educating himself on the matter, he learned that the issue of space debris was being extensively discussed at the time, but with no tangible solutions in sight.
He decided to come up with one, despite not having any space engineering background, seeing a clear potential within the market, and the lack of competitors. He began approaching scientists and engineers, relaying his vision to them and pitching proposals. Today Astroscale counts more than a hundred employers, with offices in Japan, UK, and the US, and innovative technology for orbital debris capture and removal, ready to launch in late 2020.
ELSA-d (which stands for End-of-Life Service by Astroscale) is Astroscale’s first demonstrative mission, self-described as «the world’s first commercial orbital debris removal». It is not the only satellite developed by Astroscale. The first one was a twenty-two-kilogram microsatellite called ‘Idea OSG-1’, devised to monitor the density of small debris, and was meant to launch on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2017, but something went wrong. Mr. Okada stood on the platform, watching as his creation disappeared in the sky, only to learn shortly that it has fallen into the Atlantic Ocean, due to an anomaly in space: «This was my first experience, now I know there’s a launch failure every 20 times, so 5% of launches fail in the world. I never expected this would happen to us in the beginning. Today I have my fears, I know there is a risk but it’s out of our control».
Second time round, the mission is more pervasive and ambitious – to approach the tumbling target, precisely calculating its movement trajectory and relative speed; to match it and safely attach itself to the debris; to then bring it down into the atmosphere where it will burn upon re-entry. The satellite has multiple sensors to help find the objects and manoeuvring thrusters which allow ELSA-d to change the orbit and to synchronise the motion. The synchronisation of the speed and motion is one of the biggest challenges, which is why at the moment Astroscale is prioritising larger debris over smaller pieces.
«We need to dance with the target object to make sure the relative rotation rate is zero, then capture and stabilise it, and then bring them down. We developed each technology ourselves and then combined into the one system which is small, cheap and reliable, and we made a solution», Mr. Okada explains. ELSA-d is built in the UK and operated from the National In-orbit Servicing Control Centre Facility in Harwell, UK. The result from the launch will be visible in a short time, the mission should only take a couple of months for the key technologies to be demonstrated.
Astroscale is far from being the only company on the market actively developing space debris removal services. A Swiss startup, ClearSpace, is set to launch a similar clean-up mission in 2025, planning to remove 100kg upper-stage of a rocket orbiting around 400 miles above Earth. Last year American aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman launched a spacecraft aimed to intercept and repair broken satellites. With that said, Mr. Okada is positive that nobody else has ever captured a rotating object in space before. Seven years down the line, the moment when he wasn’t so sure whether there would be a market for his product is long gone — each year there are more and more ventures taking on the task of cleaning the space.
It looks like Astroscale may be the first to beat the competitors to the punch by conducting the first commercial debris-removal mission, although the official date is not yet known to the public. The reason for the increase in competition lies in the growing number of satellites and our immense reliance on space technologies, now more than ever before. Weather forecasts, GPS navigation, internet connectivity and the consistent time stamp are just the obvious benefits which we reap from satellites swirling out there.
With the decrease in their size and cost, companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb are launching, or preparing to do so, a substantial amount of new probes in clusters – sometimes more than a hundred at a time – which are frequently referred to as constellations, or ‘megaconstellations’. These companies make for majority of Astroscale’s clientele. Mr. Okada says, that when «a company launches thousands of satellites at the same time, some of those will be break in space and then those broken ones will hit their own satellites, so they have to remove the defunct ones. They will pay us for the service».
Other likely clients are the governments, who are beginning to assume the responsibility to remove their space trash. This solves an issue, posed by a 1967 international treaty, which states that man-made objects in space belong to the countries that launched them, and cannot be touched without approval. In order to make the cleaning of space continuous and more accessible for his customers, Mr. Okada aims to reduce the cost of the service by accelerating the developing process to produce smaller and more robust technologies faster.
To present day, the company has been securing funds from governmental and private investors, including SBI Investment Company and Mitsubishi Estate Company. The main challenge has been the lack of public awareness when it comes to orbital sustainability – it is hard to convince potential customers and backers to invest in something they know very little about.
Amplifying global awareness also brings about the necessary review of legislation and guidelines, pushing decision-makers and key players towards a much-needed collaboration in the face of a common threat. The measures that are currently in place include a twenty-five-year deorbit rule, avoidance of intentional generation of debris (including anti-satellite tests), and minimization of potential for accidental explosions, but there is still a long way to go.
According to Mr. Okada, stricter regressions and laws are directly linked with raising the public consciousness, otherwise, the priority of this issue is neglected, «We have a lot of support from the international space community, from the European Space Agency, for example. We want to have stricter rules so that we can secure sustainable space but to do that, awareness is needed because otherwise, the decision-makers don’t understand the priority of this issue». He points out that with the extent of our reliance on space technologies today, orbital sustainability is of the utmost concern to make sure the assets in space are secure.
Mr. Okada hopes that the ELSA-d demonstration will open the door for a regular and steady debris removal service, one which will be a routine and not a novelty. He hopes to achieve this in ten years, according to a personal career challenge he has set for himself, although being conscious of the task’s magnitude. «We are just beginning and there’s lots of work to do. We’ve come so far, after climbing one mountain you see a higher mountain, and there’s still a long way to go».
New generation technologies which will aim to remove multiple objects at once are already in the making, as they prepare for the launch. However, if this service is to become systematic and routine, a couple of important questions arise. As humans struggle to clean up the environmental mess on Earth and deal with the impending climate crisis, should we be focusing on eliminating pollution in space? And is bringing debris from the orbit to burn in the atmosphere sustainable for our environment? Mr. Okada maintains that there aren’t any known dangers for the atmosphere, as a result of burning of the spacecraft upon re-entry.
«We see ourselves as space environmentalists on a mission which will have a very real impact on what is happening here on Earth. Even though we cannot see or touch our orbital environment, it is still a natural resource, very similar to that of our forests, oceans, and rivers, and is an essential part of our global ecosystem», he states, emphasizing the crucial role that satellites play in monitoring the climate, detecting changing temperatures, increasing carbon emissions, dwindling forests, rising oceans and melting ice caps. In other words, satellites are the very reason why we are able to measure and manage climate change, and they enable us to predict the future of our planet. Environmental protection on Earth cannot exist without orbital protection in space.
When asked whether he would travel to space if an opportunity presented itself he laughs and says, «Sure, if my wife says yes». If human space travel becomes accessible in the future and he is to take that trip one day, creating absolutely safe and secure conditions is a number one priority. We are still a long way from achieving this goal. «I see myself as the conductor — I can’t achieve the Astrocale mission without our team and partners — like an orchestra which needs its players and supporters. My role is simply swinging a conductor’s baton with a strong passion for space sustainability».