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Astroscale: The Space Sweepers

Katayama Osamu profiles Tokyo-based orbital debris removal company Astroscale.

 

The removal of orbital debris is a big dream. But every company and organization involved in space, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), started from a big dream.”

Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale

So says Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale, a space venture company on a mission to launch a commercial service of removing orbital debris.

“By cleaning up space we can assure a sustainable environment for space satellites.  This will provide societal benefits today and assure a better world for the next generation.  We also expect it to have extensive possibilities as a business,” Blackerby says.

There have been few successful cases of testing orbital debris collection in the past. As the technology and business case is so difficult, missions such as this are usually pursued by an academic institution, national agency, or major corporation engaging in space development. Is it possible that a venture company is able to realize such a dream?

There is a lot of debris in Earth’s orbit. Defunct satellites, used upper stage rocket engines, and fragments of satellites that have broken into pieces are all artificial debris. It is said that there are more than 23,000 such pieces of debris 10 centimeters and longer and more than 750,000 pieces of debris 1 centimeter and longer. The issue of orbital debris is a serious one when considering future space development.

It is unthinkable that orbital debris will vanish naturally unless it is removed. Depending on the altitude, debris will continue to orbit the Earth for hundreds of years. When certain orbits get too crowded with debris, it forces operators to choose different locations, far away from a collision course with orbital debris. But of course, an increase in debris means limitations on the usable orbits.

If orbital debris should crash into artificial satellites and space stations, it would cause serious damage. Blackerby explained a theory called the Kessler Syndrome that shows this danger: “In the event of a collision between orbital debris and satellites in space, many tiny pieces of new debris will be created. This will cause a chain reaction of more crashes, resulting in an exponential increase in orbital debris.” If that occurs, the situation will be irrecoverable. Future space development will be impossible without the removal of orbital debris.

 

The Space Debris Remover

 

Nobu Okada, the founder and CEO of Astroscale, paid keen attention to this. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture at the University of Tokyo, Okada joined the Ministry of Finance. After obtaining an MBA from the Krannert School of Business, Purdue University in the United States, he worked for a consulting firm and then managed several IT companies. Okada always had a passion for space and founded Astroscale in Singapore in 2013 to try and bring a business mindset to solving the problem of space debris. He is a highly unique entrepreneur who is the engine that drives this team of “space sweepers.”

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