Emerging orbital debris market

ClearSpace-1 mission technical rendering.

clear space

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It’s a sad irony, but irony nonetheless, that this week announced by the European Space Agency That piece of space debris — which was left in orbit after the launch of Arianespace’s Vega rocket in 2013 and was the target of the removal mission — appears to have been hit by other space debris.

The ClearSpace-1 mission aims to demonstrate the process of “active debris removal” by capturing the discarded rocket part with a spacecraft equipped with robotic arms. The spacecraft is developed and operated by Swiss startup ClearSpace, which is backed by the European Space Agency and investors such as OTB Ventures and In-Q-Tel.

Separately, NASA and SpaceX are preparing to launch the Crew-7 astronaut mission to the International Space Station. But the International Space Station itself You may have to dodge space debris this afternoonwith the station controllers considering changing its altitude.

The threat posed by space debris is not a new problem for the industry, but it is more pressing than ever. Brian Weeden, director of the Secure World Foundation and one of the leading experts on the subject, said he was “not too surprised” to hear that the ClearSpace-1 target had been hit, “because we honestly don’t have good statistics on that.” Collisions with very small pieces of debris.”

“We’re pretty sure there are over a million additional pieces of debris…1 to 10 centimeters in size…but they are too small to be tracked right now, so we can’t predict where they are. We just can’t avoid them,” Weeden said. “.

Satellites and space debris are largely tracked via ground-based radars and telescopes. Weeden noted that the US military, through, has the “most complete public catalog” of things. Europe, Russia, and China all have their own tracking networks, too. Japan, Korea and India are working on it.

Meanwhile, companies are working on commercial tracking services. Weeden called LeoLabs a “big leader” and noted that other companies such as ExoAnalytic, Slingshot Aerospace, HEO and NorthStar are also building networks.

“We’re doing pretty well, just not good enough,” Weeden said.

Debris removal is an emerging part of the broader scope satellite services market (Also known as Aerospace Service, Assembly, and Manufacturing, or ISAM). But Weeden noted that there are some sticking points that remain theoretical, as “no company or government has ever claimed damages for damage to a space satellite as a result of a collision or debris.”

While there are easing measures for commercial satellite operators — such as FCC requirements on how long satellites can remain in orbit after service ends — the “big question” for Weeden revolves around governments, which he says are Biggest offender: “How do you do that? Are we incentivizing governments to clean up their waste?” Followed shortly by: “How do they do it?”

Weeden envisions something like NASA’s commercial cargo program, where the government would help fund research and development and then hold a competition to award service contracts to companies.

“But someone in government has to say, ‘We’re going to put money in there to do this,'” Weeden said, “and we’re talking hundreds of millions or billions” of dollars.

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