Cleaning up Earth’s orbit

A start-up plans to create a space servicing system. But first, they’ll send a Japanese sports beverage to the moon.

By: Reuters | Published:June 29, 2014 12:36 am

Nobu Okada wants to save the planet from orbiting junk, which he says is in danger of cutting us off from the satellites we depend on and space beyond. But to help fund that he needs to land a can of powdered Japanese soft drink on the moon.

“Our daily lives are totally dependent on satellite technology. What if you can’t be prepared for storms, not watch the World Cup, if ships can’t use GPS?” he told a conference recently.

Okada, 41, says his Singapore-based start-up Astroscale is just part of a dramatic shift in the “NewSpace” industry — the growth of private companies challenging old, expensive government-driven programmes. Okada is tackling what Lux Research analyst Mark Bunger calls THE problem of NewSpace: clearing up what’s already there. NASA estimates that more than half a million bits of debris — from defunct satellites to marble-sized fragments like lens covers and copper wire — are orbiting Earth. Millions more are too small to track.

And because they’re hurtling around at thousands of kilometres per hour, even small flecks of paint can be lethal when they collide — hitting the space shuttle, for example, smashing through a glass visor or tearing solar panels off satellites.

So far, this orbital mayhem has been largely the concern of governments and their space agencies. Okada says that’s no longer enough. Space junk hasn’t just seeped into the popular consciousness because of the movie Gravity. Experts agree we’ve now hit the Kessler Effect — when the number of objects in lower orbit is dense enough that collisions could cause a cascade.

Space junk will orbit for anything between a few years to a century or more before gradually falling to the atmosphere and burning up.

There have been more than a dozen proposals to speed up the process or destroy the debris remotely. They range from a giant tether that would generate electricity to slow down space junk until it falls into lower orbits. Australian researchers have proposed zapping debris with lasers. Others involve balloons, a solar sail, a wall of frozen water and harpoons.

Astroscale is developing a technology that Okada says is cheaper and better than these approaches. A mother ship launches six smaller ‘boys’ which latch on to the largest pieces of space junk and propel them into a lower orbit.

While the technological issues are not insurmountable, “the harder challenge is to make them economically feasible,” says Sima Adhya, head of space at global speciality insurer Torus.

That’s why eyebrows have been raised that a humble start-up, which has so far secured no firm financing or investors and is led by someone with no track record in space, could get into removing space debris. Okada, though, counters that his youthful passion for space and entrepreneurial bent — he had stints at Japan’s finance ministry, Bain Capital and McKinsey’s — suits finding the elusive business model for ‘spring cleaning’ space.

The key, he says, is to develop a technology that can serve a dual purpose — generating enough revenue until the real business of debris removal takes off. So, by persuading Japanese soft drinks manufacturer Otsuka Pharmaceutical to pay to get one of its ‘Pocari Sweat’ drinks on the Moon, the company gets publicity, while Astroscale gets a chance to test materials.

US-based Astrobotic, for example, will deliver the titanium capsule — which looks like a Pocari Sweat can but actually contains 120 plates laser-engraved with children’s messages, and a serving of the powdered drink. (The thinking goes that by the time the next humans land on the Moon they will be able to reach the water known to be trapped under the surface to mix with the drink powder.)

There’ll be more PR stunts to come, Okada says, which will help fund Astroscale’s team of space pioneers until the opportunity comes to launch his mother and boys for real.

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