'Space junk' unicorn backed by Japanese billionaire wants to clear the skies for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos



For more than a decade, an abandoned piece of a Japanese rocket has been speeding uncontrolled around Earth, at risk of colliding with active satellites and causing havoc in orbit.

Now a Tokyo-based startup run by a veteran of McKinsey & Co. and Japan’s Ministry of Finance is sending a spacecraft to inspect the debris, a major step in the effort to counter the threats that human-made space junk pose to multibillion-dollar systems being deployed by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others.

A spacecraft from Astroscale Holdings Inc. — which took off aboard an Electron rocket from Rocket Lab USA Inc.’s launch complex in New Zealand on Feb. 19 — will soon attempt the world’s first close-up survey of large orbital debris. 

Once it completes tests to ensure the equipment is working properly after the launch, Astroscale aims to send the vehicle within 100 meters (328 feet) of the upper stage of a rocket left in orbit by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2009, one of many such pieces left in space by countries such as the US, China and Russia.

As part of the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) mission, the spacecraft will circle the old rocket, measure the rate at which it’s spinning and make other observations — no simple task when the target is about three tons in size, 600 kilometers above Earth and hurtling through space at a speed of eight kilometers a second. 

If ADRAS-J can pull it off, Astroscale will take a major step toward its longer-term goal of deploying junk-removal vehicles, according to founder and Chief Executive Officer Nobu Okada, who started Astroscale in 2013 with $200,000, half his total savings. 

“The space industry has been just a throw-away culture,” he said. “The world needs our services.”

A 50-year-old former IT entrepreneur and strategy consultant, Okada founded Astroscale after attending a conference in Germany where the problem of debris was a hot topic. He set up shop in Singapore, where he had run another software startup, and opened a small office in Tokyo in a garage. In 2019, he moved Astroscale headquarters to Tokyo. 

A funding round last year raised $83.6 million and valued Astroscale at $954 million, with investors including Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, Mizuho Bank Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and the Development Bank of Japan.

The company’s first attempt to measure a small piece of debris in low-Earth orbit failed in 2017 but a 2021 follow-up mission successfully docked with a 17-kilogram (37 pounds) satellite put into orbit for the test. 

Risky Orbits

There are about 36,500 debris pieces greater than 10 centimeters circling Earth, according to the European Space Agency, creating the risk of collision with satellites from SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon.com Inc.’s Project Kuiper constellations as well as other spacecraft such as China’s space station. 

To reduce the danger, regulators want satellite operators to develop de-orbiting plans for satellites once they become inactive. 

“Ten years ago, nobody knew about space debris, but today’s different,” Okada said. “We see real growth of the market, because you see the regulations coming.”

Read More: FAA Proposes Space Junk Clean-Up Rule to Declutter Earth’s Orbit

Okada plans to expand into other types of services for satellites, including refueling and repairing. The satellite-servicing market is estimated to reach $5.1 billion by 2030, according to MarketsandMarkets Research. 

Okada’s early start has helped win contracts from five governments, including a $25.5 million deal with the US Space Force to design a satellite that can refuel other satellites in space. 

The ADRASJ mission, to perform what’s called Rendezvous and Proximity Operations, has an undisclosed amount of funding from JAXA’s Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration program, which the space agency introduced in 2019 to encourage private companies to develop debris-removal technologies. 

“RPOs are very challenging for spacecraft,” said Caleb Henry, director of research at analytics firm Quilty Space. “Should Astroscale succeed with ADRAS-J, it will show the technical viability of commercial debris removal and could encourage customers to buy such services.”

Tow Trucks

While JAXA chose Astroscale for the first phase of the program, JAXA has yet to select a company for the program’s next phase — a demonstration of the ability to capture space debris and remove it from its current position.

Okada’s goal is to make satellite removal and other in-orbit operations commonplace. “By 2030, we want to make all servicing just routine,” he said. “Look at the garbage truck or the tow truck. They do the job every day.”

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