SINGAPORE – Nobu Okada wants to save the planet from orbiting junk, which he says threatens to cut us off from the satellites we depend on and prevent us from traveling into space. But to help fund that, he needs to land a can of powdered sports drink on the moon.
“Debris affects our daily lives. What if you can’t be prepared for storms, not watch the World Cup, if ships can’t use GPS?” he told a recent news conference. “Our daily lives are totally dependent on satellite technology.”
Okada, 41, says his Singapore-based startup Astroscale is just part of a dramatic shift in the “NewSpace” industry, the private companies and new technologies that are challenging old, expensive government-driven programs. While startups and giants like Google are sending ever more objects into space, Okada is tackling what Lux Research analyst Mark Bunger calls the top problem of NewSpace: clearing up what is already there.
The U.S. space agency NASA estimates that more than half a million bits of debris — from defunct satellites to marble-size fragments like lens covers and copper wire — are orbiting Earth. Millions more are too small to track. And because they are hurtling around at thousands of kilometers per hour, even small flecks of paint can be lethal — hitting the space shuttle, for example, smashing through an astronaut’s visor or tearing solar panels off satellites.
So far, this orbital mayhem has been largely the concern of governments and their space agencies. Okada says that is no longer enough. “Somehow the amount of debris is still growing, and there’s no clear solution yet,” he said.
Space junk hasn’t just seeped into the popular consciousness because of the movie “Gravity.” Experts agree we have reached the Kessler syndrome, in which the number of objects in low orbit is dense enough that collisions could cause a cascade.
Some experts agree with Okada’s nightmare vision that it has become harder to guarantee the safety of astronauts passing through these debris fields on the way to outer space.
“Suddenly you have a debris field acting as a real barrier to operations in the lower Earth orbit,” said Jeff Forrest, the chairman of aviation and aerospace science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, “which would annihilate commerce in inner space and make launching out of Earth’s environment extremely risky.”
Space junk orbits for anything between a few years to a century or more before gradually falling to the atmosphere and burning up. There have been more than a dozen proposals, most either made or funded by major space agencies, to speed up the process or destroy the debris remotely. They range from a giant tether that would generate electricity to slow down space junk so it falls into lower orbits to deploying tungsten dust that could, the theory goes, sweep smaller debris into the lower atmosphere.
Australian researchers have proposed zapping debris with lasers. Others involve balloons, a solar sail, a wall of frozen water and harpoons. None has been fully implemented, mostly because of cost.
Astroscale is developing a technology that Okada says is cheaper and better than these approaches. A mother ship would launch six smaller “boys” that would latch on to the 200 largest pieces of space junk and propel them into a lower orbit. They could also prolong a satellite’s life through remote maintenance.But there are problems. Holger Krag of the European Space Agency (ESA) points to the lack of a legal framework for private firms to start removing debris. Under informal agreements, countries active in space have only implemented 60 percent of their commitments to remove their debris, he says.
And then there is money. While the technological issues are not insurmountable, “the harder challenge is to make them economically feasible,” said Sima Adhya, head of space at global specialty insurer Torus. “I’ve yet to see a convincing business plan where a company could make money out of a service removing debris, or for a government to justify the expense.”
That is why eyebrows have been raised that a humble startup, which has so far secured no firm financing or investors and is led by someone with no track record in space, could get into removing space debris.
Okada, though, counters that his youthful passion for space and entrepreneurial bent — he had stints at Japan’s Finance Ministry, Bain Capital and McKinsey’s — suits finding the elusive business model for cleaning space.
The key, he says, is to develop a technology that can serve a dual purpose, generating enough revenue until the real business of debris removal takes off.
So, by persuading Otsuka Pharmaceutical to pay to get one of its Pocari Sweat drinks on the moon, Otsuka gets publicity while Astroscale gets money and a chance to test materials and build relationships with partners. Okada declined to say how much the deal with Otsuka is worth.
U.S.-based Astrobotic will deliver a titanium capsule that looks like a Pocari Sweat can but actually contains 120 plates laser-engraved with 3,800 children’s messages, and a serving of the powdered drink. The thinking goes that by the time the next humans land on the moon, they will be able to reach water trapped under the surface to mix with the powder.
There will be more elaborate PR stunts to come, Okada says, which will help fund Astroscale’s team of space pioneers until the opportunity comes to launch his mother and boys for real.
Okada sees his vision as part of a bigger shift in which the cost of technology is falling far enough to allow startups and others to make inroads into space. “The overall trend is that the space industry is changing,” he said.
Thierry Guillemin, chief technology officer of Intelsat, a communications satellite provider, sees two key drivers: our desire to be connected anytime, anywhere, and the allure of space tourism.
Google has bought a solar-powered drone startup, satellite imaging company Skybox, and has been reported to be in talks to buy a stake in spaceship company Virgin Galactic.
And then there are “microsatellites” — hundreds, possibly thousands, of which will be launched in the next few years to gather data from sensors, monitor Earth via cameras and provide communications.
Syed Karim, for example, is launching a startup called Outernet, which he says will broadcast Internet content to satellite dishes, mobile devices and simple antennas. He sees commodity hardware and off-the-shelf components as upending the industry by shortening the feedback loop between design, development and liftoff. “If you have $100,000, we can get something small into orbit in six months,” he said.
Some say the ease with which smaller devices can be launched into space may be contributing to the problem.
The ESA’s Krag says that while the larger microsatellites — so-called CubeSats, which are 10 cm on a side — can be monitored, “flying circuit boards smaller than a bar of chocolate” might be too small to be tracked. Given such objects zoom around at thousands of kilometers per hour, “we’re actually placing in orbit a number of bullets, that, if we do it the wrong way, could destroy a (space) mission.”
Those in the business shrug off such concerns. James Mason, a former NASA research scientist who is now head of missions at the startup Planet Labs, which launched 28 Earth-observing satellites earlier this year, says his company tries to launch its “flocks” of satellites into low orbits “so that they naturally burn up in the atmosphere in a few years.”
Astroscale is not alone in taking on space junk. Instead of clearing up the trash, called active debris removal, an Italian startup called D-Orbit wants to ensure that whatever goes up can either come down again and burn up, or else be pushed out into so-called graveyard orbits where it can’t cause any damage. The company has developed a propulsive device that would be attached to satellites before launch and be activated only when the satellite reaches its end of life.
Founder Luca Rossettini said his technology would make satellites last longer and speed up their decommissioning. D-Orbit is working with a major satellite operator to include its device on an upcoming launch, he says. When that approach is mastered, D-Orbit would then explore removing existing junk.
“Basically, our technology is ready and can ‘freeze’ the problem. Active debris removal would slowly decrease the amount of junk,” he said.
Okada acknowledges he hasn’t taken an easy path. He set up his company in Singapore because of fears that governments elsewhere may use his technology for military ends — capturing or diverting other countries’ satellites, for example. He is also caught between the speed of the space industry — where launches can take years to prepare — and startup investors used to much shorter time frames. “Investors have to exit within five years. This is not one of those industries,” he said.
But he thinks the industry is ready for someone like him. Heading off to the airport in Singapore for another proselytizing talk in Japan, he says the industry knows his is the first company to tackle this problem. And, he said, “that we are crazy enough.”
Tokyo “Lunar Dream Capsule Project” news conference: youtu.be/5kO_SoiyhwI