Imagine watching a movie at home or typing on a computer and a message flashes across the screen: “Service interrupted due to space congestion.”
If that sounds like science fiction, consider this: There are about 6,250 satellites in space, roughly 3,700 of which are still functioning, according to the European Space Agency. Experts say an additional 10,000 to 50,000 satellites could be launched in the next few years to meet the expanding demand for telecommunications, weather forecasts, tracking ships at sea, hailing a ride-share car and smartphones.
Astroscale U.S., based in Denver, and other subsidiaries of Japan-based Astroscale Holdings are participating in a demonstration of its technology aimed at helping remove space junk — defunct satellites, abandoned rockets and smaller fragments. The launch of two spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was scheduled for a few minutes after midnight Saturday, March 20, local time.
“This is really important for us because this will demonstrate that we know what we’re doing, that we’re walking the walk,” said Dave Fischer, the U.S. company’s vice president of business development and advanced systems.
The demonstration will include a standard refrigerator-sized craft, what Astroscale calls the service vehicle, docking with a smaller craft, representing a satellite that a client wants removed or inspected. The next step will be to release the smaller craft, send it tumbling far away and then have the service vehicle retrieve and connect with it.
“That’s exactly what a real commercial service on orbit will look like. We’ll use our sensors, we’ll use GPS, the client’s knowledge about (the craft’s) position to rendezvous with it,” Fischer said. “All of that is critical for us to understand so we can do the commercial service that we’re talking about.”
Fischer said the mission will be the first private on-orbit demonstration of so-called “end-of-life” services for satellites. A 2007 mission by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency involved one spacecraft connecting with another and transferring a battery, other equipment and propellant.
Other companies are in various stages of developing and testing technology to remove debris and nonfunctioning satellites and extend the lives of spacecraft that would otherwise be turned off, Fischer said.
“This is pretty clearly an ecosystem that’s going to be developing over the next decade and there’s certainly a market need,” Fischer said.
In a 2020 interview, Ron Lopez, Astroscale U.S. president and managing director, referred to the company as “the AAA of space.”
Most of the other companies working on debris removal are focused on low-Earth orbit, between 99 and 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface and where much of the junk is. At this point, Astroscale sees itself as the leader in that part of space. And Fischer said the company is the only one aiming to provide the services both in low orbit and geostationary orbit, which is 22,236 miles above the Earth.
The NASA office of the Inspector General released a report in January that criticizes NASA on its work cleaning up space. Despite directives over the past decade, the space agency has made “little to no progress” in removing debris that “threatens the loss of important space-based applications used in daily life,” the report said.
There are millions of pieces of debris in low Earth orbit, according to the Inspector General’s office. At least 26,000 pieces are the size of a softball, which could destroy a satellite on impact, and more than a half million pieces are the size of a marble, big enough to damage a spacecraft.
The debris packs such an-out-of-this-world punch because it’s speeding around the Earth at approximately 17,500 mph. The report said the average speed at which one object hits another in space is more than 10 times faster than a bullet.
Then there’s the Kessler syndrome, a scenario proposed by NASA scientist Donald. Kessler in which a collision in low Earth orbit triggers a cascading series of strikes that could disrupt the deployment of satellites to certain areas. That could lead to the interruption of space-based data for weather forecasts, communications and the global positioning system, which is used by the military and has all kinds of commercial applications.
Orbiting meteoroids also pose threats to the increasing number of satellites in space.
“If we can’t receive that information, we won’t get accurate forecasting. We won’t get data for natural disasters. It will have significant impacts on how we live our everyday lives,” Astroscale spokeswoman Krystal Scordo said.
During the recent snow storm along the Front Range, Scordo said she had to brush snow off her TV satellite dish. “The image on the screen said service is disrupted due to weather. Could you imagine an image on your screen that says service is disrupted because of orbital congestion?”
The small-satellite industry acknowledges the problem with space junk and the concerns about the effects of the growing number of spacecraft, said Steve Nixon, president of the industry group SmallSat Alliance.
“On one hand, our industry is very acutely aware and very sensitive and wants to be good stewards and wants to have good space hygiene,” Nixon said.
On the other hand, Nixon said, the problem of space debris sometimes gets pinned on the small-satellite industry, which he said is inappropriate. The market for small satellites, some the size of mini fridges and smaller, is expected to keep growing as companies and governments want more information and images of Earth.
“The ironic and interesting thing is that the main reason we think there is space junk up there has less to do with the new small-satellite industry and almost everything to do with the traditional industry that put a lot of things in orbit, like rocket bodies and things like that, and did not take the extra step of deorbiting the stuff they should have,” Nixon said.
“Deorbiting” is the last step Astroscale will take during its demonstration, meaning the service vehicle and the second craft will leave orbit, fall toward Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. The so-called client vehicle Astroscale will launch is equipped with a magnetic docking plate the larger spacecraft will connect to.
As Nixon noted, plenty of satellites were launched without docking plates or similar equipment that newer satellites increasingly include. Fischer said the industry is looking at using such devices as grappling hooks or robotic arms to grab satellites that don’t have docking plates.
Astroscale plans a launch in 2023 to demonstrate its service called life extension for spacecraft in geostationary orbit. The service vehicle would use robotic arms to grasp the spacecraft by the payload adapter ring, the place it was mounted on the rocket. It will take control of the satellite, inspect it and make any necessary upgrades and burn its fuel to keep it in position longer than anticipated. That will extend the craft’s life and allow the owner or government agency to push back building and launching a new satellite.
The current demonstration will take as long as needed to go through all the steps and perform all the services, Fischer said. “We’re our own customer so we’re not under any timelines from an external customer to meet certain schedules.”
An Astroscale facility in the United Kingdom will handle mission control for the demonstration.
“We’ll be doing a virtual watch party here. All the Astroscale affiliates around the globe will be doing watch parties,” Fischer said. “This is really exciting. This is what we’ve been working toward.”
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