Astroscale: On a mission to make space sustainable
Here at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus near Oxford, we’re passionate about helping companies working in the science, innovation and technology sectors grow and thrive. That’s why Astroscale Limited, the UK and European subsidiary of Time100 Most Influential Company, Astroscale Holdings Inc., decided to establish a base at Harwell to build the world’s first commercial space debris removal spacecraft.
But who exactly are Astroscale, what do they do – and why do we need to remove debris from space? Let’s take a look.
Who are Astroscale?
Established in Tokyo in 2013, Astroscale’s vision is “to make space sustainable”. The company is the world’s first private organisation that’s dedicated to making space a safer environment for future generations. Astroscale specialises in developing innovative and scalable in-orbit solutions that include end of life, active debris removal, satellite life extension and space situational awareness.
One of the company’s core aims is to tackle the ever-growing presence of hazardous debris, also known as ‘space junk,’ to effectively clean up space and make it a safer place in which to operate. Astroscale is also defining business cases for the development of an in-orbit economy, as well as working with governments and commercial stakeholders to define norms, regulations and incentives for the responsible use of space. Ultimately moving away from a single-use, throwaway culture in space to a smart, sustainable and circular economy that provides satellite operators with an opportunity to decrease risk and increase returns.
Since 2013, Astroscale has enjoyed consistent international growth, initially expanding into Singapore, followed by the UK in 2017, the USA in 2019 and Israel in 2020. Their work forms part of a worldwide drive to develop policy and technology for space debris removal and space sustainability, a field in which the UK is a global leader. As part of an emerging market that will revolutionise the future of space, Astroscale are perfectly placed to lead the way.
The problem with space debris
There are already over 9,000 orbiting satellites, of which around 7,000 operational and working to power our daily lives from space. Over 10,000 more are set to launch over the next decade. Unfortunately, the debris resulting from defunct systems and other ‘junk’ jettisoned from spacecraft are causing a big problem, as operating safely in space is getting more and more challenging.
With over 32,000 pieces of trackable debris and 130 million further pieces that are too small to be tracked, space is becoming a crowded and dangerous place. A sustainable infrastructure is therefore needed to reduce risk to services operating in-orbit and increase value for investors.
This is where Astroscale comes in. The company offers satellite operators and launchers a range of flexible in-orbit services that aim to create a sustainable foundation for the growth of the space economy, as well as preserving the physical space environment and making it a safer, cleaner place.
Securing our space highways: Astroscale’s in-orbit services
Astroscale’s four main services are:
This is a spacecraft retrieval service for satellites that have reached the end of their operational lives. By removing these satellites, Astroscale are helping operators to protect the orbital environment and ensure the ongoing viability of satellite services. Their first End-of-Life Service mission was called ELSA-d (demonstration) and launched in March 2021. The learnings from ELSA-d are now being used to develop ELSA-M (multiple), a solution that will capture and retire multiple client satellites in a single mission. It will be the world’s first commercial venture designed to capture and remove failed satellites and dispose of them safely.
The many thousands of pieces of large space debris currently in orbit consist of redundant satellites and spent upper stage rocket bodies. ADR requires a special solution as these types of debris were not prepared for retrieval before being launched. Working with multiple partners, Astroscale is developing the Cleaning Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture (COSMIC) system, which will use a robotic debris capture mechanism to retrieve two defunct British satellites by 2026. Through COSMIC, Astroscale is working with the UK Space Agency on securing the UK’s first national mission to remove space debris.
With the cost of building and launching a new geostationary-orbit (GEO) satellite coming in at around $200 million, it makes sense for operators to make the most of the fleet they already have. Astroscale’s LEX service means existing satellites can be serviced, repaired or upgraded in-orbit rather than just replacing them. This work means the lifespan of many telecoms, navigational and national security satellites will be extended – saving millions of dollars and helping reduce the amount of space junk that needs to be collected.
This is all about gaining a deeper understanding of the space environment, including the weather, to help make missions safer and prevent collisions between space objects. It includes a wide range of activities, from observing multiple objects with long-range remote sensing using radar or telescopes, down to close-proximity observations of a specific target, which is known as inspection. Astroscale is currently developing new in-orbit sensing capabilities, which will be showcased in their forthcoming ADRAS-J inspection mission.
Why Astroscale chose Harwell Science & Innovation Campus
Astroscale have ambitious plans to develop their commercial offering in the coming years and play their part in nurturing the growth, innovation and manufacturing potential of the UK’s space sector. Having outgrown their old premises, the company commissioned the creation of a new, custom-built 20,000 square foot facility at Harwell, aptly christened ‘Zeus.’ Representing a 90% increase in space from their previous site, Zeus boasts a high specification satellite manufacturing facility, an operations centre and offices for 120 staff.
Located at the heart of the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus Space Cluster, Astroscale’s new UK headquarters are ideally placed next to key partners such as the UK Space Agency, European Space Agency (ESA), Satellite Applications Catapult, the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and many other space industry players. This strategic location will play a key role in empowering Astroscale to lead the development of the in-orbit servicing supply chain and commercial space service economy, by creating new jobs and enabling national capability at these world-leading facilities.
“I am delighted to open our new state-of-the-art UK premises at Harwell Campus. This facility will support our ambitious growth plans for the UK business, allowing us to work with our partners to drive forward the development of the in-orbit servicing commercial market in the UK. If we act now, we will ensure a sustainable space economy for future generations.”Nobu Okada, Founder and CEO of Astroscale
About Harwell Science & Innovation Campus Space Cluster
At Harwell, pioneers and experts work side by side to deliver innovation across the worlds of science and technology. Start-ups, scale-ups and established companies all come together on our Campus to form a vibrant community that includes some of the planet’s most enlightened businesses and brightest minds. Our Campus consists of four Clusters: Space, Health Tech, Energy Tech and Quantum.
Astroscale is our newest addition to the Space Cluster, which is one of the most exciting parts of the Campus. We’re an integral part of the UK’s space sector and house 105 dynamic organisations which, together, employ around 1,400 people. From familiar household names like Airbus and Lockheed Martin to fast-growing concerns such as Oxford Space Systems, we’re proud to work with the cream of the UK’s aerospace industry.
The Space Cluster and the organisations that live here are fast building a strong global reputation for innovation. Since its inception, the Cluster has grown by 15% and made a major contribution to the £5.7 billion that the UK Space Industry has added to UK GDP in recent years.
By building links with other international space clusters, we’re also helping the UK achieve its National Space Strategy goal to make up 10% of the global space-related economy by 2030. Astroscale will play a leading role in this work through their aim to make debris removal and in-orbit servicing a part of routine space operations in the next few years.
Astroscale: one to watch out for
As the UK continues to drive world-leading space research, technology and policy development, Astroscale will be at the forefront of space debris removal and satellite management, space sustainability and space situational awareness. They’re definitely one to keep an eye on as they continue to thrive and grow on the global space stage.
To find out more about Astroscale and their latest projects and missions, please visit www.astroscale.com.
For more information about Harwell and the benefits of joining our Space Cluster and wider community, please head to www.harwellcampus.com/property to find out about the space we have available for your organisation and its activities.
Image credit: Astroscale