Astroscale's mothership deploying a boy. Image credit: Astroscale

Mar 16, 2015 Astroscale plans to clean up space

Sen—I recently attended the Global Space Technology Convention (GSTC), which was held in Singapore in February, which featured some exicting space technology companies.

The GSTC, now in its 8th year, is a conference which is attended by the movers and shakers of the global space tech community, and features an exhibition area and keynote speeches from various industry insiders.

GSTC features space companies from both ends of the scale, from giants such as Airbus Defense & Space and Orbital ATK, right down to university satellite departments such as NTU, and also startups such as Astroscale.

Astroscale is a Singapore-based startup dealing primarily in the business of space debris. And given the expected growth of the small satellite sector over the next few years (and the existing space debris problems) it seems like a potentially lucrative business to be a part of—if someone can create a technically and commercially viable solution to the problem.

Formed in 2013 by Japanese businessman Nobu Okada, Astroscale seem quite confident that they have a concept that could work. 

Just to bring everyone onto the same page, “space debris” is the collection of broken satellites and discarded rocket stages that are currently encircling the Earth, generally in the Low Earth Orbit zone (160-2000 km altitude).

A collision between a piece of debris and a satellite can have potentially catastrophic results resulting in something known as the “Kessler Syndrome”. This effect is where one piece of debris collides with another body, causing one body to break apart and sending pieces flying off in all directions. Those smaller pieces then collide with other bodies, resulting in more explosions and even more pieces breaking off, and so on. Imagine a cosmic game of snooker, and the first collision is equivalent to the cue ball breaking the triangle. Such a cascading event could potentially disrupt access to space for an entire generation. That would mean no more satellite launches, no more interplanetary probes and no more astronauts to the space station. And if you have seen the movie Gravity, you will be familiar with at least the fictitious depiction of the Kessler Syndrome and its effect on the International Space Station (and the Chinese station Tiangong-1)!

So that is space debris in a nutshell—what exactly do Astroscale plan to do about it?

Astroscale have designed a conceptual debris-removal satellite, consisting of 2 systems. The main segment, or the “mothership” flies around space seeking troublesome debris targets. Once the target is acquired, the mothership deploys one of its smaller systems, known as a “boy” which then attaches itself to the debris. Once attached, the boy fires its solid propellant engine, and decreases the orbital speed of the debris causing it to fall back to Earth—or more correctly, to burn up in the atmosphere. The company states the boy can deorbit a satellite with a mass of 50 kg.

The innovative start up has already secured USD $7.7 million in Series A funding. The cash injection came from a group of Japanese investors and will help Astroscale establish an office in Japan, with the aim of accelerating their small satellite production capabilities.

Astroscale’s portfolio does not stop at space debris however. They are also involved in plans to send a can of soft drink to the Moon!

Wait, what? Yes, Astroscale are hardware designers and managers for the Otsuka “Lunar Dream” project. Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. manufacture an electrolyte-rich health drink by the curiously untempting name of “Pocari Sweat”. The Otsuka Lunar Dream project wants to see a Pocari Sweat can-shaped time capsule launched to the Moon aboard Astrobotic's lunar lander, which plans to launch sometime in 2016 as part of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition (GLXP).


An image of the Pocari Sweat time capsule which will hitch a ride to the Moon aboard Astrobotic's lunar lander scheduled to launch in 2016. Image credit: Otsuka Pharmaceuticals

Contained within the capsule will be some small metallic disks with dreams of hope engraved onto said disks, and a small amount of evaporated, powdered Pocari Sweat.

The idea is that when future generations of explorers reach the Moon, they will be able to crack the time capsule open and mix the powder with water harvested from the Moon itself.

Will that ever happen? Will an astronaut be so heavily depleted of electrolytes that their first task on a new world will be to dig up a can of drink? Well its certainly a fun idea and an awesome piece of marketing in any case. As they rightly say, it will be the “first beverage to land on the Moon” and it will also be the first deliberate piece of advertising present on the Moon’s surface.

Of more interest to me personally is to see whether Astroscale can make this de-orbit debris solution work. That really coud be a game changer.