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Japanese space firm cleans up space debris to ensure orbital sustainability

Astroscale, founded in 2013, removes orbital debris and wants to secure spaceflight safety and long-term sustainability. The company’s mission is to bring down debris through its two business lines – Active Debris Removal and End of Life Services. It is currently not involved in in-orbit satellite servicing, however, it is exploring it as a future opportunity area owing to the technological capabilities being developed.

Astroscale intends to partner with national space agencies and international organizations to research and develop missions that incorporate innovative solutions, such as robotic arms, for capture and removal of existing environmentally critical debris.

“We expect that maintaining a sustainable orbital environment will require a range of services, from debris removal, to refueling, to servicing, and we have long-term plans to be involved in all of these areas”, says Chris Blackerby, COO, Astroscale, in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World.

Chris Blackerby, COO, Astroscale

Space debris certainly poses a big hazard to mankind’s ‘common province and final frontier’ and to satellites orbiting around the Earth. What are some of the major risks if space debris is not cleaned in a timely manner?

In the current climate, the likelihood of a collision between two satellites is very low. However, the environment is getting crowded, with over 95% of objects in orbit classified as debris while only 5% are active satellites. This leads to greater risks as potential collisions are becoming more likely. In September 2019 alone there were reports of several close collisions between active and defunct satellites, which required operators to alter orbits. Furthermore, the satellite industry is evolving very quickly and activity is increasing dramatically.

Since 1957, when the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched, there have been about 8,000 satellites sent into orbit; in just the next ten years the expectations are that upwards of 20,000 satellites will be launched, twice as many as in the first 60 years of the space age. This rapid rise in the number of objects means that the potential for collisions increases to the point where utilization of Earth’s orbit becomes unsustainable.

These collisions in orbit are often catastrophic: objects in low-Earth orbit are traveling at 8 km a second, faster than a high-speed bullet, so even a 1 cm piece of debris can end a mission. It is in the best interest of operators planning to launch hundreds of satellites to make sure the risk of losing an expensive asset in orbit, and subsequently disrupting service to customers, is as low as possible. Removing debris mitigates this risk. Much like the saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” the cost of preventing damage is going to be a fraction of the cost of recovering from the damage.

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Tell us about your Active Debris Removal mission?

In order to reduce the risks, we need efforts to mitigate and remove space debris.  Astroscale has two broad solutions: End-of-Life Services (“Don’t add any more debris to the orbital environment”) and Active Debris Removal (“Bring down large debris objects currently in orbit”).

There are currently several thousand large pieces of debris in orbit, consisting primarily of defunct satellites and spent upper stage rocket bodies. These pieces of debris can be as large as a double-decker bus and weigh up to several tons. The Active Debris Removal service requires a ‘non-cooperative’ grappling solution for large target debris that was not prepared for deorbit before launch.

You plan to launch ELSA-d in 2020. What are the main features of this satellite, and do you think it would make a significant contribution in the removal of space debris?

ELSA-d is our first mission to test the technologies necessary for orbital debris removal and will be the world’s first commercial debris removal mission. It will not only be a milestone for Astroscale but is expected to be a landmark mission in the global debris removal landscape.

ELSA-d will demonstrate a complex series of maneuvers to prove the technology to safely rendezvous, dock and remove a piece of space debris under various conditions. During the mission, two spacecrafts will be launched together: a 180-kilogram servicing spacecraft designed to rendezvous and dock with a 20-kilogram satellite serving as a piece of simulated space debris. Once in orbit at an altitude of 500 to 600 kilometers, the two satellites will separate and begin a three-part demonstration.

After the satellites separate the first time, the larger servicing satellite will extend a robotic arm with a magnetic interface to connect with a ferrous metal plate on the outside of the small satellite. The satellites will then separate a second time, after which we will make the small satellite tumble, simulating a piece of uncontrolled space debris.  The servicing satellite will synchronize its motion with that of the smaller satellite, locate the ferrous plate, and dock. Finally, we will send the small satellite beyond the range of the larger satellite’s onboard cameras. Then, with the help of ground-based and onboard sensors, the servicing spacecraft will find the small satellite, rendezvous and dock. Following the three successful demonstrations, the attached satellites will move to a lower orbit and both will burn up upon re-entry in Earth’s atmosphere.

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What are some of the main challenges and pitfalls in removing space debris?

There are two overarching challenges that we face in developing a service for removing space debris: technical and regulatory.

Technically, there is no such thing as a “routine” mission to space.  Every space mission is rife with technological challenges and approaching and docking with a non-cooperative and tumbling target in orbit is certainly no exception.  Locating a piece of debris, performing rendezvous and proximity operations, docking and deorbit requires significant research and development for hardware and software.  We have a very talented team of engineers from around the world working on this mission and we are constantly seeking to identify the best technical solutions.

From a regulatory perspective, the challenge is in applying laws and standards to a region not under the authority of a specific government. Even if everyone recognizes that a problem exists, the authority to regulate a solution is not there and users can act with impunity. We need to work with international organizations, multi-lateral institutions, national governments, industry, and academia to devise creative solutions to regulating a common area. Current international frameworks are no longer adequate.

Fortunately, we are seeing the proliferation of ad hoc international regulatory bodies to discuss global best practices. For example, the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) have adopted Guiding Principles and Recommended Design and Operating Practices for rendezvous and proximity operations as well as in-orbit servicing. The recently formed Space Safety Coalition, of which Astroscale is a member along with 20 other organizations, has set out best practices that go above and beyond existing guidelines and standards, such as striving to complete the deorbit phase within five years of end-of-mission. The input from these industry groups is now flowing to governments and international organizations We would like to see more from the international bodies and governments in updating existing guidelines, but we are heading in the right direction.

It is only by addressing the technical and regulatory challenges that we will be able to create a sustainable market for space debris removal.

Do you think AI and Machine Learning could play a leading role in removing space debris in the future?

Yes, absolutely. As the number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase dramatically in the next decade, today’s manual collision avoidance process will no longer be adequate. Avoidance maneuvers take a lot of time to prepare, from determining the future orbital positions of all functioning spacecraft, to calculating the risk of collision and potential outcomes of different actions. After a near collision with a commercial satellite, ESA announced that they are preparing to automate this process by using AI. From the initial assessment of a potential collision to moving a spacecraft out of the way, automated systems are going to become as commonplace in space as we see them here on Earth.

What should the governments and space organizations do to ensure that space debris doesn’t accumulate?

For satellite operators and launch providers, what we want to see is a docking plate installed on all spacecraft before launch. This plate can serve as means for semi-cooperative docking by a servicer in the case of satellite failure or mission end of life.  Installing a plate is the first step towards exhibiting responsible orbital behavior. Just like you wouldn’t leave a broken-down car on the side of a road, we want to see the same responsible attitude and behavior on the orbital highways.

Governments are starting to realize that the space debris issue is critical and that they are responsible for much of this orbital risk. In fact, most of the debris pieces are a result of explosions from rocket stages that have been left in space for too long. These events happen about five times per year, so the amount of space debris fragments is gradually rising.

At the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan in June 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan will conduct a trial to remove a piece of debris with a goal to commercialize the technology by 2025;  The European Space Agency is actively discussing future debris removal missions; and Space Policy Directive-3 states that the US should pursue active debris removal as a necessary long-term approach to ensure the safety of flight operations in key orbital regimes. We hope to see all governments be responsible users of space and establish norms of behavior that contribute to a safe and sustainable orbital environment for generations to come.

What were the main reasons for the failure of In-situ Debris Environment Analysis mission, and what were the lessons learnt?

Over two years we successfully designed, developed, tested and shipped IDEA OSG 1, our mission to measure sub-millimeter size debris in low Earth orbit. Unfortunately, though, the launch vehicle on which we were manifested failed and IDEA OSG 1 was lost. Despite being disappointed and saddened by the failed launch, our team rebounded and our whole team redoubled efforts to make our next mission succeed. We all know that space is hard, but whether a mission succeeds or fails, there are always valuable experiences and lessons to be learned. We learned a lot in terms of satellite development, supply chain management, the need for a regulatory framework and team-building. We gained a lot as a team and we will be applying what we learned from IDEAS OSG 1 to ELSA-d.

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