Astroscale wants to be the world's friendly neighborhood space garbage collector
Just as World Economic Forum pushes for five-year deadline to de-orbit junk
Earth's orbit is getting extremely untidy, littered with the corpses of satellites, spent rocket engines, and debris caused by collisions between space garbage.
Though humanity has spent decades doing the equivalent of "la la la I can't hear you," it now actually poses a risk to current and future space missions. The US Department of Defense's global Space Surveillance Network is tracking more than 27,000 pieces of floating trash.
In an effort to get the ball rolling on a solution, late last summer the Federal Communications Commission proposed a five-year deadline after the end of a mission to dispose of equipment through uncontrolled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Previously it was fine to leave a unit in an orbital decay that would re-enter within 25 years, though the agency now believes this is unsustainable given the frequency of launches, and compliance is thought to be less than 50 percent.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) appears to agree with these time scales. This week it published its "Space Industry Debris Mitigation Recommendations" [PDF] which aim to maintain a post-mission disposal (PMD) success rate of 95-99 percent or better, with all operators striving for the five-year target to remove obsolete space stuff from low Earth orbit (LEO).
It also recommends that satellites are maneuverable, preferably through onboard propulsion, at altitudes above 375 kilometers and asks governments to mandate the use of active debris removal (ADR) systems for objects that cannot comply with the guidelines.
One person's trash is another person's treasure, after all, and an industry is springing up around the problem. Take Astroscale, for example, whose raison d'être is to be the garbage men of LEO.
This week the Japanese company published a video on how its ELSA-M End of Life service will match the orbit of a target object, inspect the site, then dock before pushing the defunct spacecraft off to fiery euthanasia in Earth's atmosphere.
Astroscale says ELSA-M should be able to retire multiple client satellites in a single mission and is aiming to run an in-orbit demonstration with a constellation customer satellite next year. If successful, this would be the first time a commercial ADR system completes "the end-to-end operations of a removal service with a full sized and fully representative client."
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Satellite docking has also been successfully demonstrated by Northrop Grumman's Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV). While this is for the sake of giving client spacecraft a new lease on life rather than ending them, it gives credence to Astroscale's ambitions.
The WEF's recommendations have some buy-in from operators who run large constellations like OneWeb, Planet, and Spire, and a mix of established and emerging space companies – including Astroscale. But others are conspicuous by their absence.
SpaceX operates Starlink, the largest satellite constellation, and is surely set to be one of the worst orbital polluters in the decades to come. Amazon, which is developing the Project Kuiper constellation to rival Starlink in the satellite broadband stakes, is also not a signatory. Nor is Viasat, which runs another large internet constellation.
For a long time, it's been hoped that collisions in orbit are the stuff of science fiction, but the days of "set it and forget it" are coming to an end. ®