SAN FRANCISCO — Space logistics startup TransAstra has won a contract from NASA to manufacture a bag to capture orbital debris.
Under the $850,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract, TransAstra will build an inflatable catch bag and will demonstrate on the ground how the device, which uses inflatable stents to open and close, encapsulates a non-cooperative object.
The grab bag technology was invented at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Asteroid Redirect mission, a plan to meet a near-Earth asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit.
TransAstra built a small catch bag in 2021 with funding from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. The new TransAstra contract was awarded through NASA’s SBIR Ignite program, which supports early-stage technology with potential commercial applications.
“We originally developed this small grab bag prototype to demonstrate asteroid mining in low Earth orbit using an artificial asteroid,” said Joel Sercil, founder and CEO of TransAstra. Space news. “But we later realized that this is the greatest thing ever for cleaning up orbital debris.”
Small catch bags can retrieve cubed satellites. The larger bags could encase spent rocket hulls, geostationary communications satellites or 50,000-tonne asteroids, Sercel said.
Capture bags offer some advantages over other orbital debris cleanup methods.
“It doesn’t take the target to have any constructs that you can catch,” Sercel said. “It doesn’t require latching, and it’s a precise maneuver. You have to be precise enough to open the bag, put the bag around this thing and close the bag.
If the target object is spinning rapidly, for example, the catch bag “has to match its spin to a certain degree, as our analysis indicates,” Sercel said.
Instead of removing one piece of debris at a time, TransAstra suggests picking up multiple items with one bag.
“If you have to fly to an object, capture it, go into a short orbit, and then return to operational altitude, that takes an enormous amount of fuel,” Searssel said. “It’s better to pick up multiple pieces of debris in one mission.”
Recycling in orbit
A recent study completed by TransAstra and space infrastructure startup ThinkOrbital proposes transporting debris or dead satellites to an in-orbit processing plant.
Capturing, storing, and reusing space hardware has reduced the cost by six times compared to the cost of flying the objects individually to a low enough altitude to return to Earth’s atmosphere quickly. In addition, the reuse approach reduced fuel costs by 82 percent and reduced debris removal time by 40 percent.
“These results validate and validate the potential for this approach to solve one of the largest and most pressing existential threats in space in a faster, easier, more economical, and sustainable way,” Sebastian Asprilla, co-founder and CEO of ThinkOrbital, said in a statement. “The implications for the advancement of space industrialization in light of these findings are profound.”
Suggested cleaning method
TransAstra and Think Orbital propose launching catch bags on the TransAstra Worker Bee spacecraft. After navigating to the target debris orbit, the worker bee will transfer the debris to ThinkOrbital’s ThinkPlatform.
The proposed ThinkPlatform has a diameter of approximately 37 meters and a volume of 4,000 cubic metres. ThinkOrbital plans to provide ThinkPlatform with tools to check, repair and recycle things.
“The powerful combination of these revolutionary technologies creates an efficient ecosystem to address our growing space debris problem immediately and on an ongoing basis,” Nicole Schumacher, TransAstra’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, said in a statement. “Repeated trips to capture orbital debris and transport it into Earth’s atmosphere for disposal require significant propellants and time. Space recycling plants solve this problem and turn what was once a liability into an asset that not only dilutes orbital debris, but opens up new possibilities for manufacturing.” construction in space.
The conclusions of TransAstra and ThinkOrbital are the result of a two-part study. Through extensive computer simulations, the companies compared the costs and thrust mass needed to dispose of debris on an orbital platform with capturing debris bodies for disposal in Earth’s atmosphere.
TransAstra plans to fuel Worker Bee at ThinkPlatform.
The benefits of debris reuse have remained consistent across various debris masses and orbital altitudes, according to the press release.
“This study demonstrates that we can, and must, creatively rethink the way we approach debris handling,” Lee Rosen, co-founder of ThinkOrbital and a retired US Air Force colonel, said in a statement. “This is critical not only to the advancement of space exploration and industrialization, but also to our national defense.”