A company that aims to clean junk from space has secured up to $30 million (¥3.39 billion) in public-private funding and plans to launch the world’s first debris-mapping satellite later this year.
Singapore-based Astroscale, which last year opened a development center in Tokyo, on Tuesday announced the backing of Innovation Network Corp. of Japan (INCJ), a public-private partnership aimed at promoting innovation, as well as a further $5 million from venture capital fund Jafco.
Entrepreneur Nobu Okada founded Astroscale in 2013 to tackle the problem of space debris, man-made scraps of junk that have turned the Earth’s orbit into a deadly minefield.
Experts estimate there are roughly 150 million pieces of debris currently orbiting the Earth at speeds of around 8 km per second — 20 times faster than a bullet — making even tiny fragments potentially lethal to astronauts and putting satellites in danger of destruction.
“I started by myself and the original question was whether I can really remove the debris,” Okada told The Japan Times at INCJ’s headquarters in Tokyo. “I started from that question. Today my answer is ‘yes,’ most likely we can do that. The reason is we have a team.”
Astroscale on Tuesday also unveiled the technology it plans to use in its operations, including the IDEA OSG 1 satellite, which the company plans to launch aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket at the end of the year.
Astroscale aims to use IDEA OSG 1 to map pieces of debris less than a millimeter in size so that space agencies and private firms can use the information to protect their equipment.
The company’s second piece of technology, ADRAS 1, is an adhesive-smeared spacecraft which is designed to stick onto debris and move it out of harm’s way. ADRAS 1 is scheduled for launch in 2018.
“On the highway there are rules, insurance premiums, policemen, cranes, everything there to make the highway clean,” said Okada, who compares his company to “the JAF or AAA of space.”
“On the highway in space — orbit — there are no rules, no money, no cranes, no policemen. So why don’t we have it? Space is more congested.”
Okada was joined at the news conference by astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, who in 2010 became the second Japanese woman to fly in space when she took part in a mission aboard the shuttle Discovery.
“People have been researching space debris for years, but no country had ever taken any concrete action,” said Yamazaki, whose own shuttle’s window was hit by a piece of debris measuring less than 1 cm — enough to put the mission in jeopardy.
“Everyone wondered who would be the one to take that step, but I was surprised that it came from the private sector,” she said. “You need the passion, business model and the right people on board. Quite honestly I had my doubts at first, but it has grown so much and I’m happy to see it where it is today.”