Why Space Debris Is A Problem And What Astroscale Are Doing About It

Nobu Okada talks about starting his career as a space industry outsider, finding a neglected problem around space debris and fixing it with a team of 72 and $132 million in funding.
Nobu Okada
  • Founder & CEO
    Nobu Okada
  • Founder & CEO
    Astroscale
  • Space debris removal
  • Focus
  • 🌍
  • Employees
  • 72
  • Country
  • Founded
  • 2013

Tell us your background, about Astroscale and your mission

I received my Bachelor in Agriculture from the University of Tokyo and went on to work at the Ministry of Finance in the Japanese Government. After leaving this position, I went on to earn my MBA from Purdue University in the United States. I then worked as a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Company and managed two IT firms in Asia for the next 10 years. So, as you can see, my background has nothing to do with space, but it is an area I have always been deeply passionate about from a young age.

I founded Astroscale in 2013 due to a strong desire to address the growing threat of space debris. Astroscale is the first private company to offer space debris removal services to assure orbital sustainability and secure long-term spaceflight safety for the benefit of future generations. That is our mission and what our team of Space Sweepers are working toward every day.

The company was founded in Singapore and we now have locations in Japan (now our headquarters), the United Kingdom and, most recently, the United States. Since 2013, the company has grown from one to 72 personnel and continues to expand.

How did the idea for Astroscale come about and what was it like getting started?

My childhood dream was actually to be an astronaut. At the age of 15, I attended Space Camp in the US, where I was able to meet the Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri. As I approached the age of 40 and wondered what I should do with the rest of my life, that dream was revived. I recalled that, when giving me his autograph, Mohri had added a handwritten message that said “Space is waiting for your challenge”, which was like a nudge to chase my dream.

I wanted to know what the hot topics were in space, so I attended several international space conferences and an issue that kept being brought up was space debris. However, the spacefaring nations were at a loss on how to tackle the issue. At the European Conference on Space Debris in April 2013, there was lots of talk on the research and concepts but nothing on the solution which I found very frustrating. So, I decided that this was something I must solve and, ten days later, I founded Astroscale.

Astroscale is the first private company to offer space debris removal services to assure orbital sustainability and secure long-term spaceflight safety for the benefit of future generations.

I spent the following months studying about space debris and technology and went on to hire a team who could support me in solving this issue.

Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration

People know about global warming and our polluted oceans, but they don’t know anything about our congested orbits. Since the first satellite, Sputnik-1, was launched in 1957, humans have been increasingly relying on satellite services from GPS navigation, to weather forecasting to national security. Now, 60 years and over 8,000 satellite launches later, satellites are part of our everyday life on Earth.

And space is about to get a lot more crowded with commercial satellite operators planning to launch 10,000 to 20,000 satellites over the next five to ten years. This is adding to what is already up there. According to the European Space Agency, there are 34,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, 900,000 objects between 1 cm to 10 cm and approximately 128,000,000 objects between 1 millimeter to 1 cm in size, all orbiting Earth at speeds 10 times faster than a bullet.

These objects include defunct satellites, spent rockets bodies and other fragments, and they threaten both current and future space missions. Even a fleck of paint moving at those speeds can cause severe damage to an active satellite. The problem is we don’t see these millions of pieces of debris in orbit, so the issue feels very disconnected from our daily life.

The density of space debris has reached a critical level where chain collisions can happen at any time in the near future, otherwise known as the Kessler syndrome. So, if we do not take any action, space will become unsustainable. Somebody has to clean up space before debris gets smaller and completely unmanageable.

The problem is twofold. First, we need a way to prevent further debris from being created and, second, remove what is already up there. Future debris will mostly come from large constellations and a certain percentage of these satellites will fail in space. They have to be replenished with new satellites to maintain coverage.

To do that, they have to remove the old satellites to make sure the orbital plane is open and safe. Astroscale is designing and building a satellite, End-of-Life Service by Astroscale (ELSA) which involves sending up a satellite and using technology to synchronize the motion of a piece of debris, then dock with it and bring it back down to the atmosphere so they both burn up.

In terms of what is already up there, these are mostly government pieces of debris. We are talking with national governments and space agencies about our Active Debris Removal service to remove what is already up there. With the cooperation of governments and government funding, we should prioritize which debris are the most critical and remove high priority debris, such as rocket upper stages.

The density of space debris has reached a critical level where chain collisions can happen at any time in the near future otherwise known as the Kessler syndrome.

At Astroscale we are working on three important tasks – developing the technologies, working with the policymakers and closing the business case.

With plans to send astronauts back to the Moon, increasingly ambitious commercial missions, and plans to launch more satellites than ever, we need a sustainable and safe orbit so we can continue to use space to support these missions. Astroscale is more than just a business opportunity, it also ensures the safety of future space exploration.

What are some achievements you're proud of?

When I founded Astroscale, I believed four things were essential in order to succeed: a dream engineering team, a proven solution, funding, and an international framework. We now have a team of 72 and growing, we are in the hardware testing of our ELSA demonstration (ELSA-d) mission, we recently announced that we successfully raised a further US $30 million bringing total capital raised to US $132 million, and we are involved in conversations which are shaping international policy. I am proud that we have achieved our goals so far and that Astroscale is on track to fulfil its mission.

I am also proud that space sustainability is now regarded as a social imperative under the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations, and that Astroscale is now widely viewed as an innovative and essential player in that context.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

If you want to work in space then you need to be prepared for failures. Our first mission, IDEA OSG 1, launched in 2017. The aim of this mission was to measure sub-millimeter size debris in Low-Earth Orbit. Unfortunately, the launch vehicle failed, and we lost the satellite. This was a very tough lesson and I felt like I went through space’s baptism of fire. But despite this hard lesson, our team learnt some important lessons and we used the experience to continue to work toward our second mission ELSA-d.

Space debris removal will become routine work much like trash collection on Earth.

Also, space costs a lot and raising funds is crucial for survival. The only way for Astroscale to survive is to raise money quickly and to prove yourself even quicker. Our plan has been to raise money every 15 months or so and progressively prove the technical and commercial concepts. And there are of course the technological challenges as well. Approaching and capturing a non-cooperative and tumbling target is very technically hard so making sure you hire talented engineers to support your mission is critical.

Then, finally, there are the regulations or who should take responsibility for removing the debris. I have seen the proliferation of international regulatory bodies to discuss global best practices and standards over the last two years. I believe that, in three to five years, these trends will facilitate regulations on space debris and space debris removal will become routine work much like trash collection on Earth.

What are exciting milestones coming up for Astroscale?

In April 2019, we announced the opening of our new office in Denver, Colorado. The Denver office will focus on business development, policy influence, expand supply chain and we will of course be looking to increase our talent pool.

As we look to grow our US presence, our Japan and UK teams are preparing for the launch of our ELSA-d mission which is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket in 2020. The team is currently in the hardware testing phases and working hard to ensure the mission is a success.

What is your vision for humanity in space long-term?

Space debris is an international problem so my hope for the future is established international regulations which contribute to an active, useable and sustainable space environment.

As you can see from my journey into space, it doesn’t matter if you have a background in space or not.

If a car breaks down on a highway, it needs to be taken out so that traffic can continue to flow. The same should apply to Low-Earth Orbit – when a satellite fails or breakdown, something should move it out of the way. I hope that Astroscale will be a key contributor to a sustainable space and that our ELSA satellites will be the roadside service for satellites in orbit.

What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?

As you can see from my journey into space, it doesn’t matter if you have a background in space or not. I truly believe if you follow your passion and are willing to learn and do the hard work, then you can make your mark in space.

I began my journey into space by learning as much as I could. I read more than 700 papers on space technologies and met with academics and executives in the space industry and asked them lots of questions and tested my hypotheses.

It wasn’t easy and, initially, the responses were all negative. One person even told me there’s no market – nobody will pay money to remove space debris. But when I heard there was no market, I took that as a positive – if there’s no market, then there’s no competition. Six years later, Astroscale has a few competitors which plan to enter the debris removal market.

What’s the best way for the public to support you with your mission?

The most important thing the public can do is to have an interest in the space debris issue and keep the topic going as a key talking point. Space debris is an issue that could have consequences for generations to come. Public support is necessary and having a voice from the people is important to push global coordination.

As we prepare for our 2020 ELSA-d mission, we will be giving updates on our progress on our social media and blog throughout the year, so stay tuned!

We also attend conferences around the world so if you are nearby and are interested in learning more about the issue of space debris or Astroscale, come and say hello! We were recently at Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and we will be at Satellite 2019 in May, SmallSat Conference in August, UK Space Conference in September and IAC in October, as well as several others. You can find out where we’ll be on our social media and website.

Where can people find out more about Astroscale and follow along?

We regularly update our News and Blog and post all job openings on our website: www.astroscale.com

We are also active on the following social media accounts:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Astroscale/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/astroscale

Twitter: https://twitter.com/astroscale_

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/astroscale/

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  • Nobu Okada
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