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Developing the business case to clean up space debris and secure a sustainable future


Investigating collision risks for satellite operators and highlighting incentives for satellite operators to engage with active debris removal services

Astroscale is the first private company with a vision to secure the safe and sustainable development of space for the benefit of future generations, and the only company solely dedicated to on-orbit servicing across all orbits. Founded in 2013 by Japanese entrepreneur Nobu Okada, the company is developing innovative and scalable solutions for satellite end-of-life and active debris removal services to mitigate the growing and hazardous build-up of debris in space.

The company has committed to developing a market-leading service to remove space debris and secure long-term orbital sustainability.

Investigating effectiveness of debris removal strategies

The increase in the number of large satellite constellations will add thousands of satellites to low-Earth orbit over the next decade, increasing the likelihood of collision and posing a risk to the sustainability of the entire orbital environment.

Astroscale entered the SPRINT business support programme to investigate collision risks for satellite operators and to highlight incentives for satellite operators to engage with active debris removal services.

In collaboration with SPRINT partner, the University of Southampton, Astroscale sought to determine the effectiveness of different active debris removal strategies using the semi-deterministic Debris Analysis and Monitoring Architecture to the Geosynchronous Environment (DAMAGE) model, developed by Professor Hugh Lewis from the faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Southampton.

DAMAGE can simulate the evolution of future debris populations. As part of the SPRINT activity, the software was upgraded to add the capability to monitor (simulated) large constellations for compliance with international guidelines or for their contribution to the risk environment, and to remove failed satellites, according to a prescribed strategy linked to a desired compliance or risk level.

‘A significant step forward’

John Auburn, Managing Director of Astroscale UK

The SPRINT project marked a significant step forward in understanding the benefits and impact of debris removal services for different types of satellite constellation, and justifying action to remove failed satellites to maintain the orbital environment. The results from the data have allowed Astroscale to identify which debris removal strategies are most effective, strengthening the business case for future debris removal missions.

“Debris poses a threat to active satellites on which we rely daily. Though society is growing more aware of this increasing hazard, some satellite operators have not yet acknowledged the importance of removing their obsolete spacecraft,” said John Auburn, Managing Director of Astroscale UK and Chief Commercial Officer at Astroscale Holdings. “By using DAMAGE to identify and model collision risk in orbit, we were looking to quantify the value of debris removal to the maintenance of business sustainability.”

DAMAGE model benefits understanding

Harriet Brettle, Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale

Harriet Brettle, Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale adds: “Whilst Astroscale’s mission is technically very challenging, an equally large challenge, requiring extensive innovation, is how to develop the commercial business case for debris removal.

“The SPRINT project has enabled us to combine Professor Hugh Lewis’ expertise in modelling the orbital environment with the debris removal strategies in development at Astroscale. This project has given us greater insights into the safety and sustainability challenges that satellite operators may face and refined our understanding of the benefits and impacts of debris removal services.”

SPRINT project validates argument for debris removal

Harriet Brettle explains: “At altitudes over 600km, any objects that fail could potentially remain there for up to hundreds of years and may be involved in collisions. By removing failed objects, we can slow the growth of space debris and reduce risk, as measured directly in our simulations. The space debris issue is only going to get worse in the absence of action. Operators have the opportunity to be pro-active by preparing and planning for the removal of debris as it accumulates in different orbits.”

John Auburn adds: “We are at a unique time for the next generation of satellite operators, including many large constellations that ought to consider space debris mitigation for short-term safety and longer-term sustainability. The technology is in development to prepare for on-orbit end of life satellite servicing, providers such as Astroscale are willing to develop and deliver debris removal services, and there are growing expectations from the space community, including international actors such as the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the UK Space Agency, to act responsibly in space.”

International efforts to protect future space activity have been given a boost thanks to a new partnership between the UN and the UK government

Harriet Brettle concludes: “The SPRINT project with the University of Southampton has helped us to illustrate and broaden our analysis and find ways to make the business case for debris removal services. We’re confident that this novel approach will position Astroscale’s offering positively in the space domain.”

Astroscale space debris removal demo set for launch

The BBC recently reported that ‘a mission will launch to space that aims to demonstrate commercial technology to remove orbital debris, such as a defunct satellite. The showcase is being staged by the Astroscale company and will be run from an operations centre in the UK.’