(Refiles to remove 'Pix' from slug line, keeps 'Graphic')
By Jeremy Wagstaff
SINGAPORE, June 19 Nobo Okada wants to save the
planet from orbiting junk, which he says is in danger of cutting
us off from the satellites we depend on and the outer space
beyond. But to help fund that he needs to land a can of powdered
Japanese soft drink on the Moon.
"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 satellite technology."
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
"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
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.
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 on speculation.
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 end-of-life.
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
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 time frames.
"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 crazy enough."
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)