Astroscale opens lab in Tokyo in bid to clean up space junk


Staff Writer

A Singapore-based company that aims to sweep junk from space has expanded to Tokyo and has handed its biggest broom to 32-year-old female President Miki Ito.

Japanese entrepreneur Nobu Okada founded Astroscale in 2013 to tackle the growing problem of orbiting space debris — man-made scraps ranging in size from disused satellites to tiny metal fragments that have turned Earth’s orbit into a deadly minefield.

Experts estimate that roughly 150 million pieces of debris are currently circling Earth at speeds of around 8 km per second — 20 times faster than a bullet — making even flecks of paint lethal to astronauts and putting satellites and rockets in danger of destruction.

The number of pieces of debris 10 cm or larger in orbit has increased by 130 percent over the past 20 years, but the world’s space agencies have yet to come up with a solution.

Enter Astroscale, which plans to snare debris with adhesive-smeared spacecraft and aims to launch its first mission around the end of 2017.

The spacecraft, dubbed Mother, is mounted on a rocket and fired into space. When Mother encounters a piece of debris, it releases smaller units called Boys, which then stick to the junk using a special glue before falling to earth and burning upon re-entry.

To further its goals, Astroscale opened an engineering lab in Tokyo at the start of April. The facility employs six full-time and five part-time Japanese staff dedicated to developing and producing the spacecraft, using experienced personnel with a variety of backgrounds.

At the head of operations in Japan is president Ito, a masters graduate of Nihon University’s aeronautics and astronautics department. Ito worked on the Hodoyoshi 3 and 4 satellite projects prior to a stint at the Japan Association for Satellite Technology Corp.

As a hands-on president who estimates that 80 percent of her time is spent working on developing the spacecraft, Ito is confident the project will be a success.

“From a technical point of view, there are difficulties in sticking the craft to the debris and keeping it there, but we believe we can do it,” she told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“From a business point of view, the world’s space agencies recognize that space debris is a problem and that something has to be done about it, but the technology, cost and legal issues have all proved to be a problem. Maybe the biggest sticking point is with the law.

“But there is a need to address the problem, and although we don’t have customers yet, we are trying to keep costs down and provide a service. If we can prove our technology it might help to clarify the law. There are difficulties, but I don’t think there is anything that can’t be overcome.”

Ito identifies private satellite operators and national space agencies as potential clients, and believes the United Nations may also come on board if it recognizes the scale of the problem.

In January, Astroscale raised $7.7 million from venture capital company Jafco and nine individual investors. It used the funds to open the Tokyo facility.

“At our company we have people with experience working on satellites and working for leading space companies,” Ito said. “The people leading the development project are veterans, and the people working under them have experience also. The people working here have a lot of technical expertise.

“I don’t know of any other companies trying to clean debris, and I don’t think there are any yet. If a rival company comes along then we would be all for it. Our aim is to reduce space debris, so we would want to be on good terms with them. We just want to be a great company, striving to push technology forward.”

Astroscale’s desire to get along with everyone, it appears, even extends to its choice of headquarters.

“Singapore is a politically neutral country and we want our business to be global,” said Ito. “The United States, Russia and China are responsible for 94 percent of debris so we need to be neutral to work with them. Being based in Singapore makes that easier.”

Preventing the technology from being co-opted for military purposes also made Singapore an attractive option.

“If our technology were to be used for the wrong purpose, it could take down vital satellites belonging to countries,” Ito said. “We take care not to allow our technology to be used for the military.”

Such a danger is just one of the flaws in Astroscale’s vision, according to space debris expert Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at England’s University of Southampton.

Lewis praises the company for tackling the debris problem, but takes issue with its cost, legality and practical viability.

“The mass of the target indicated is very low,” Lewis told The Japan Times in an email. “Critical targets in LEO (low earth orbit) are massive. Removing a small object is unlikely to have much benefit to the environment, but will still be costly.

“There is no mention of the legal or political issues, and these are significant. Both would need to be addressed before any sort of large-scale removal operation could begin.

“It is very difficult to make a business case for this type of activity. The costs are high, as are the challenges, so who will pay?”

Astroscale can hardly be accused of lacking marketing pizazz, however. Last year, the company teamed up with Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of the Pocari Sweat soft drink, to launch the Lunar Dream Capsule Project, which aims to send a titanium drinks can filled with laser-engraved messages from schoolchildren to the moon next summer.

Ito says the company plans more commercial tie-ups in the future, but insists there is plenty of substance to go with the style. When CEO and founder Okada contacted her about joining Astroscale in last October, she was sold as much on the company’s expertise as its ambition.

“There are already companies who make satellites and provide services so I wasn’t so surprised, but when I heard that there was a company that wanted to clean up debris I thought it was a big challenge and very impressive,” Ito said.

“When Mr. Okada got in touch with me I thought it was very interesting. He had put in extensive research and had built it to the stage where it was more than just a dream. They had the technical expertise and I wanted to join.

“It was a little daunting taking on this position, but I thought it was such a good chance. It’s a chance to help grow the company and get involved using the skills that I have learned.”

And as a woman in a position of power in what is traditionally a male industry, Ito is also proud to be blazing a trail.

“There aren’t so many women involved in science, mathematics and physics,” she said. “I had an interest, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to challenge myself. I did think it might be difficult in a mostly male workplace, but I think everything has been fine.”