Makoto Okada was a successful technology entrepreneur in Japan, the founder of one IT company and the CFO who led another to an IPO. But in 2013, when he turned 40, he found himself having a classic midlife crisis. “What am I going to do in my 40s and 50s? I thought I was a business guru, but suddenly I lost confidence,” he says.
Looking to rekindle his passion, Okada recalled how he loved attending NASA Space Camps in the United States as a teenager. “I thought the space industry might be the place to rekindle my passion,” he says. He has attended several space conferences and discovered that the growing danger of space debris was a hot unresolved topic in the industry when he attended a conference in Germany in April 2013. Did. A week later, he launched his own startup Astroscale, which has since raised $300 million in funding, and in September signed his $4.4 million deal with the British Space Agency (UKSA) along with Swiss space startup ClearSpace. Designed a mission to acquire and remove his two spacecraft from orbit. 2025.
“I realized in 2013 that space debris had already made the space environment unsustainable, and no one had a solution to this problem,” says Okada. “That’s why I started Astroscale because removing space debris was not only a business opportunity, but an environmental necessity.”
About 13 years ago, the problem of space debris became public knowledge. On February 10, 2009, the former Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 collided with the active US communications satellite Iridium 33, destroying Iridium and marking the world’s first recorded collision between a satellite and space junk. .
NASA estimates that the crash produced about 2,000 pieces of debris, making it the first instance of the so-called Kessler Syndrome. Proposed in 1978 by NASA astrophysicist Donald Kessler, the theory states that by the year 2000, debris in Earth’s orbit had become so dense that satellites began to break apart in random collisions, causing more It was thought that more debris would be generated and more objects would break. Collision rates and debris counts are increasing exponentially. “
Kessler’s theory of a cascading domino effect of satellite destruction has yet to come to fruition, but there are worrying signs that that day is near. In 2020, there were 2,000 near misses between satellites and debris, or distances less than 1 kilometer, per month, or 70 per day. Astroscale’s Okada said that by 2021, he’s tripled to 6,000 cases per month.
“It’s scary,” Okada says. “The density of objects in space has reached a critical level.”
Hussein Bokhali, a space analyst at market research firm Northern Sky Research (NSR), said Okada’s Astroscale was the first commercial entity set up to target space debris. Astroscale now has a lot of competition in the commercial space services industry, where NSR estimates he will make $14.3 billion in revenue over the next decade.
From paint spots to city buses
According to ESA, there are currently about 8,850 satellites orbiting the Earth, and the total number is increasing every day. According to Luc Piguet, co-founder and CEO of ClearSpace, a Swiss space debris collecting startup, Earth sends about 1,000 satellites into space each year. In 2021, SpaceX alone will launch 800 Starlink satellites. Of the satellites currently in orbit, more than 2,000 are not functioning, says Julie Holt, the global lead for space at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan his Jones. But the problem isn’t the satellite, it’s the debris around it.
Earth’s orbit contains between 15,000 and 18,000 “big” debris, objects ranging from 10 centimeters in diameter, the diameter of a softball, to the size of a city bus. According to NSR’s Bokhari, there are 200,000 to 230,000 more pieces between 1 and 10 centimeters.
Even the smallest particles pose great risks. Holt Jones said, “The small pieces are about the size of a splinter of paint and are traveling at such a high speed that they can cause a lot of damage.” “I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie. gravityShe added, referring to the 2013 George Clooney and Sandra Bullock film about a space shuttle stuck in a Kessler Syndrome wreckage field. “It’s not realistic in all respects, but it highlights the potentially devastating effects of space debris.”
Since the ESA began tracking, 630 “anomalous events leading to fragmentation, explosion, collision, or fragmentation” have been recorded. It is almost impossible to hold the blame for the collision or force companies to remove outdated satellites from orbit. The universe is still governed by her 1967 United Nations treaty.
Chris Blackerby, COO of Astroscale, said: “Looking back on this 15 years from now, we will see it as a watershed moment to take steps to ensure that these tracks are clean and sustainable for our children and their children. If we don’t, we will apologize to future generations for ruining it.”
magnet, robot arm, harpoon
Satellites and debris eventually fall to Earth. According to Piguet, a dead satellite at an altitude of about 500 kilometers where Starlink’s satellite is located will fall in 5 years, a satellite at 600 kilometers will fall in 25 years, a satellite at 700 kilometers will fall in a century. It may take.
Theoretically, to speed up this process, debris-removal satellites could grab debris and dead satellites, slow them down and drag them to a lower altitude, potentially worsening their orbit.
But there are many complicating factors. First, objects in low earth orbit (LEO, less than 2,000 kilometers) move at ultra-high speeds of 7 to 8 kilometers per second. Second, debris and dead satellites do not convey their position, making them harder to spot. Third, many debris, such as rocket boosters, rotate while moving.
“Objects in orbit are not currently ready to be captured. They do not have a docking interface.
Early designs for capturing uncooperative space prey included nets and harpoons, such as those designed by the RemoveDEBRIS project, which successfully captured small objects brought into space.
But Astroscale, which now has 340 employees, has taken a different approach. Working with OneWeb, the world’s second largest satellite network after Starlink, and aerospace hardware company Altius Space Machines, the company says Astroscale spacecraft will capture his OneWeb satellites with magnets and drag them along. Developed a docking plate system to burn. atmosphere. Astroscale’s ELSA-d spacecraft successfully released and captured a test object last year.
Going forward, Astroscale will contract with the Japanese space agency to launch spacecraft to inspect the upper stage and prepare it for later removal. In 2024, he will launch an ELSA-M spacecraft to remove his one object from OneWeb’s orbit.
ClearSpace was spun out of EPFL, the Swiss Institute of Technology in Lausanne. There, a team of scientists sent his small CubeSat satellite (often used for experiments at universities) into an Iridium/Cosmos debris field in 2009, and in 2012 the debris problem grew large enough to be addressed. I realized I needed to.
But the team, led by ClearSpace co-founder Muriel Richard, showed little interest at first. The reaction was something like this: No one pays for something like this. The business behind it he has no case, ”he says Piguet. That outlook changed when companies like OneWeb began receiving funding to send hundreds of new satellites and ClearSpace launched in her 2018.
ClearSpace, which has raised $5 million in equity funding and employs 80 people, is developing a four-armed robotic spacecraft that can grab satellites and debris. In 2025, as part of an €86 million ($84 million) service contract signed with the European Space Agency (ESA), ClearSpace will launch his ClearSpace-1, removing the 112-kilogram upper stage rocket section. Also as part of his $4.4 million UKSA contract shared with Astroscale, ClearSpace will design a mission to remove two of his UK-registered derelict objects from orbit.
Astroscale is also developing robotic arms for later missions.
Ultimately, the space debris removal company’s goal is to become, in Okada’s words, a full-service space services company that can “recycle, reuse, repair, refuel and remove” space objects.
“My goal is to make orbital service just a routine by 2030, a routine job to make space sustainable,” he says. “We only have eight years left.”