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Mission to clean up space: Astroscale launches space debris removal satellite

Satellite being tested to clean up space junk
Year In Space Photo Gallery
Posted at 6:02 PM, May 14, 2021

Look in the night sky, and you’ll see planets, stars, maybe even a satellite. But what you don’t see are all the other objects floating around Earth -- also known as space junk.

“Space debris put simply, is any non-functional object in space,” Ron Lopez, President and Managing Director at the Astroscale U.S., said. “It’s estimated that about 34,000 objects that are about 10 centimeters or larger, so the size of a softball or larger..are floating around in space.”

These objects are traveling at high speeds through orbit. “There's a growing consciousness across the world about space as an extension of our environment...but it's also a business problem,” Lopez said.

That’s where Lopez and the rest of Astroscale stepped in -- launching ELSA-d in March. The world's first commercial mission for space debris docking and removal.

“It'll be the first end-to-end demonstration of a rendezvous docking and debris removal. Basically, an orbit transfer maneuver under a variety of different real-world operational capabilities,” he said.

In the future, Astroscale will do these missions for old or damaged satellites, tossing them into the atmosphere to burn up.

“Our engineers would basically figure out ahead of time whether or not a client’s satellite is expected to fully burn up in the atmosphere,” he explained.

It’s a growing issue, as more satellites get launched into space and not brought back down.

“We've launched on the order of about 7,000 rockets into space which accounts for about 12,000 satellites...since the beginning of the space era since 1957. In the next 10 years alone, we’re going to see three times that amount of launches going into space,” Lopez said.

“People are launching satellites and keeping satellites in orbit without considering the cost of the collision risk that their satellite being up there is imposing on everybody else,” Matthew Burgess, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said. “Space is one of those things we don't think about and look at on a day-to-day basis, but what happens in the satellite industry affects us, and we ultimately pay for either as consumers or as taxpayers.”

Satellites are part of our everyday lives.

“How many satellites did you use today? Did you go on an airplane? Did you use a GPS?” Charity Weeden, the global space policy lead at the Astroscale U.S., said. “What's at stake here is our modern society that is so reliant on data and access to connectivity.”

It’s becoming a bigger part of our lives -- yet there aren’t many rules and regulations. “We've actually been in space for six decades with very minimal rules,” Weeden said. “States are looking to update those regulations for a new 21st-century regulatory framework so we can all work in space together safely.”

Akhil Rao, an environmental economist and assistant professor at Middlebury College thinks having a tax in place could help.

“Something called an orbital use fee. It’s essentially kind of a tax on objects in orbit, on satellites while they’re there,” he explained. “Nobody likes to be taxed, but in this case, the tax would increase the value of the space industry by limiting congestion and pollution in the commons they are using for the foreseeable future.”

Satellites will keep going into space to meet the demand for their services globally. However, Lopez said there are ways we can move forward that will help keep orbit clean.

“Our approach is to make sure the problem doesn't get any worse. There’s no viable business case around going and doing something about the smaller pieces of debris. The best we can do is keep the problem from getting worse and making sure the satellites that are going up are brought down in a responsible manner, and we want to offer that as a service,” Lopez said.