"Debris affects our daily lives. 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. "Our daily lives are totally dependent on
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 and new technologies challenging old, expensive
government-driven programs. While small start-ups to giants like
Google send ever more objects into space, Okada is tackling what Lux
Research analyst Mark Bunger calls THE problem of NewSpace: clearing
up what's already there.
U.S. space agency 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. "Somehow the amount of debris is still growing and there's
no clear solution yet," he says.
TUNGSTEN DUST AND HARPOONS
Space junk hasn't just seeped into the popular consciousness because
of the movie "Gravity". Experts agree we've now hit the so-called
Kessler Effect - when the number of objects in lower Earth orbit is
dense enough that collisions could cause a cascade. Some experts,
though not all, agree with Okada's nightmare vision where it becomes
harder to guarantee the safety of astronauts passing through these
debris fields on the way to outer space.
"Suddenly you have a debris field acting as a real barrier to
operations in the lower Earth orbit," says Jeff Forrest,
Metropolitan State University of Denver chair of Aviation and
Aerospace Science, "which would annihilate commerce in inner space,
and make launching out of Earth's environment extremely risky."
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, most either made or
funded by major space agencies, 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 to deploying tungsten dust that could, the theory goes,
sweep smaller debris into the lower atmosphere. Australian
researchers have proposed zapping debris with lasers. Others involve
balloons, a solar sail, a wall of frozen water and harpoons.
None has yet been fully implemented, mostly because of cost.
MOTHER AND SONS
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 200 largest pieces of space junk and
propel them into a lower orbit. They could also prolong a
satellite's life through remote maintenance.
But there are problems. Holger Krag of the European Space Agency
(ESA) points to the lack of legal framework for private firms to
start removing debris. Under informal agreements, countries active
in space have only implemented 60 percent of their stated
commitments to remove their debris, says Krag.
And then there's money. 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. "I've yet to see a convincing business plan where a
company could make money out of a service removing debris, or for a
government to justify the expense."
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 money and a chance to test materials and build
relationships with partners. Okada declined to say how much the deal
with Otsuka is worth.
U.S.-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 elaborate 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.
[to top of second column]
Okada sees his vision as part of a bigger shift, where the cost of
technology is falling far enough to allow start-ups and others to
make inroads into space. "The overall trend is that the space
industry is changing," he says.
Thierry Guillemin, chief technology officer of Intelsat, a
communications satellite provider, sees two key drivers: our desire
to be connected anytime, anywhere, and the allure of space tourism.
Google has bought a solar-powered drone start-up, satellite imaging
company Skybox and has been reported to be in talks to buy a stake
in spaceship company Virgin Galactic. Google said it doesn't comment
And then there are microsatellites - hundreds,
possibly thousands, of which will be launched in the next few years
to gather data from sensors, monitor Earth via cameras, and provide
Syed Karim, for example, is launching a start-up called Outernet
which he says will broadcast internet content to traditional dishes,
mobile devices and simple antennae from satellites. He sees
commodity hardware and off-the-shelf components upending the
industry by shortening the feedback loop between design, development
and lift-off. "If you have $100,000, we can get something small into
orbit in six months," he says.
Indeed, some say the ease with which smaller devices can be launched
spaceward may be contributing to the problem.
The ESA's Krag says that while the larger microsatellites -
so-called cubesats, which are 10 cms wide - can be monitored,
"flying circuit boards smaller than a bar of chocolate" might be too
small to be tracked. Given such objects zoom around at thousands of
km per hour, "we're actually placing in orbit a number of bullets,
that, if we do it the wrong way, could destroy a (space) mission."
Those in the business shrug off such concerns. James Mason, former
NASA research scientist and now head of missions at start-up Planet
Labs, which launched 28 Earth-observing satellites earlier this
year, says his company tries to launch its 'flocks' of satellites
into low orbits "so that they naturally burn up in the atmosphere in
a few years."
Astroscale is not entirely alone in taking on space junk.
An Italian start-up called D-Orbit is approaching it from the other
side - instead of clearing up the trash, called active debris
removal, it wants to ensure that whatever goes up there can either
come down again and burn up, or be pushed out into so-called
graveyard orbits, where it can't cause any damage. The company has
developed a propulsive device that would be attached to satellites
before launch - and activated only when the satellite reaches its
Founder Luca Rossettini says his technology would make satellites
last longer and speed up their decommissioning. D-Orbit is working
with a major satellite operator to include their device on an
upcoming launch, he says. When that approach is mastered, D-Orbit
would then explore removing existing junk.
"Basically, our technology is ready and can 'freeze' the problem.
Active debris removal would slowly decrease the amount of junk."
Okada, for his part, acknowledges he hasn't taken an easy path. He
set up his company in Singapore because of fears that governments
elsewhere may use his technology for military ends - capturing or
diverting other countries' satellites, for example. He is also
caught between the speed of the space industry - where launches can
take years to prepare - and start-up investors used to much shorter
"Investors have to exit within five years. This is not one of those
industries," he told Reuters.
But he thinks the industry is ready for someone like him. Throwing
on his jacket to head off to the airport for another proselytizing
talk - this time in Japan - he says the industry knows his is the
first company to tackle this problem. And, he says, "that we are
(This story was refiled to correct spelling of Okada's first name)
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)
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