According to NASA, there are about 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger in Earth’s orbit and millions of smaller objects. Such objects can pose a danger to spacecraft because they travel at high speeds: It’s estimated that some pieces of debris cover as much as 17,500 miles per hour. Even small flecks of paint from satellites can damage spacecraft when traveling at high speeds.
The startup is building a docking system that can be integrated into satellites to make them easier to remove from orbit when they are decommissioned. Returning inactive satellites back to Earth reduces the risk of components breaking off and colliding with other spacecraft.
Astroscale has multiple projects on the agenda for the next few quarters. The startup soon plans to perform a second, more complicated experiment using the spacecraft it tested in August that will involve capturing the client system from a larger distance. A third experiment will follow suit in which the client will simulate a piece of space debris on a “tumbling” trajectory.
Astroscale is also developing debris removal systems to manage the process of capturing objects. The company completed a successful orbital test of a debris removal satellite in August. As part of the test, Astroscale’s satellite released a “client” system designed to mimic space debris and then captured it using a magnetic mechanism.
The investment, led by Japan’s THE FUND, was announced today. Astroscale has raised $300 million in funding to date including the $109 million investment announced today.
Astroscale is developing several different technologies that it plans to use to reduce the amount of debris around Earth.
Next year, Astroscale plans to launch a second spacecraft as part of a multistage debris removal project. The spacecraft will be tasked with traveling to a spent rocket stage currently located in low Earth orbit and inspecting it. The eventual goal of the project is to return the rocket stage to Earth.
Yet another area where Astroscale competes is the nascent satellite maintenance market. The startup is developing technology for extending the service life of satellites deployed in geosynchronous orbit, a region of space located about 22,000 miles above Earth. Extending the service life of satellites makes it possible to replace them less often.
“This latest round of funding will dramatically accelerate our ability to make on-orbit servicing routine by 2030,” said Astroscale founder and Chief Executive Officer Nobu Okada. “It also shows that investors around the world, acknowledge the tremendous potential in the emerging on-orbit servicing market, which will revolutionize the future of space.” The growth of the commercial space industry could create a significant market for orbital debris removal technology. Multiple companies are building orbital internet networks that are each expected to include thousands of satellites. Others are making plans for commercial space stations. As the number of commercial spacecraft launched into orbit increases, the need for debris removal systems like those developed by Astroscale could grow significantly.
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