When Makoto Okada founded the space debris-removal startup Astroscale in 2013, little alarmed outside a small circle of experts about the vast amount of matter orbiting Earth.
Nearly a decade later, the accumulated junk from decades of space exploration and the ensuing environmental crisis is not only a widely debated issue, but a geopolitical challenge among world superpowers with space ambitions. This has led to increasing academic tensions.
For Astroscale, and more broadly for Japan, debris removal presents a significant market opportunity to take the initiative both in developing the necessary technology and in establishing regulations to govern the responsible use of space. .
According to NASA, there are about 9,000 tons of debris scattered around the Earth. This includes abandoned satellites and the remains of spacecraft that are in the process of disintegrating.
The number of satellites in orbit has also surged by 50% since 2019, raising concerns that an increase in space debris could lead to catastrophic collisions with these satellites.
Collisions are still rare, but Okada warns that the number of near misses is increasing with the proliferation of satellites important to society. It provides real-time information and is also essential for communications, earth observation, and climate change monitoring.
About 2,000 times a month in 2020, a spacecraft came within 1 km of an object. According to Okada, that number has tripled for him in the past year.
“Space is the only place where there is a throwaway culture,” he says. “Space debris is a nuisance because space, unlike air, land and sea, has no borders and therefore no rules governing nations. [operating in it]”
With nations reluctant to shoulder the growing costs of space debris removal, Okada wants the private sector to undertake cleanup missions using new technologies, while helping develop regulations for responsible space use. I realized early on that there was room.
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The market for on-orbit services, such as Astroscale’s debris removal, is expected to generate $14.3 billion in revenue by 2031, according to Northern Sky Research. It helps satellites avoid collisions and extend their life through inspection and maintenance.
Okada’s startup is in a unique position among the cluster of space startups that have emerged. The company is headquartered in Japan, with subsidiaries in the UK, US, Israel and Singapore. $300 million from domestic and foreign investors, including government-backed fund Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, Nintendo’s family office, and UK-listed space tech fund Seraphim Space Investment Trust. raised funds.
“If this were a normal business, you would want to establish a presence in one country and expand the market from there,” says Okada. “For this mission, we believed we needed to build a global market presence in tandem with creating the rules.”
Currently, there are no internationally agreed legally binding regulations on outer space. The industry widely follows best practice guidelines for mitigating debris generation. However, as a member of many industry advisory boards, Mr. Okada is closely involved in discussions to finalize new regulations.
Astroscale’s debris removal service is not yet operational, but it is working with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) to launch an inspection satellite on the upper stage of a Japanese rocket body next year. This will obtain images and other data for analyzing the debris environment.
The company is also developing vehicles that can inspect, dock and remove satellites from orbit when they reach the end of their life. A dead satellite and the vehicle itself will burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The European Space Agency and the British Space Agency are funding the first mission, scheduled for 2024.
To create globally enforceable rules for more responsible use of space, cleanup technology needs to be in place, Okada says. “Without solutions, people don’t know how to regulate.”
Toru Yamamoto, a senior researcher at JAXA, says the debate over who is responsible for cleaning up the debris cannot move forward until the technology is developed. “Currently, technology is the bottleneck,” says Yamamoto. “Japan’s debris removal technology is at a very high level, [first] Must demonstrate best practices. ”
For Japan, which is also responsible for producing some of the debris, its involvement is driven by fears that it will have no say in setting rules and will be forced to bear the costs of debris removal. . “If we don’t do this, we may lose our voice as a country and end up just paying the bills,” Yamamoto adds.
For now, Astroscale’s goal is to provide regular debris removal services by 2030, when the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for achieving goals such as climate change, education and poverty are implemented.
“To ensure the sustainable development of the earth, we must ensure the sustainable use of space,” says Okada.