Dec 19, 2019

The big business of being a space janitor

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies are trying to capitalize on the threat of space junk with new technology to clean it up, but it's not clear who will pay for the service.

Why it matters: Today, thousands of pieces of space junk — ranging from tiny fragments of destroyed satellites to spent rocket bodies and defunct spacecraft — orbit around Earth, threatening operational satellites and astronauts.

  • As thousands of new satellites are slated for launch in the coming years, operators are desperate to find ways to track, remove and prevent the creation of more rogue debris in orbit.
  • The market for in-orbit satellite services is projected to reach about $4.5 billion by 2028, according to Northern Sky Research.

Driving the news: The European Space Agency recently signed a contract with ClearSpace to remove a piece of a rocket left in orbit on a mission launching in 2025.

  • Astroscale is designing a method to pull junk from space. It plans to launch a test mission in 2020.
  • Northrop Grumman launched a vehicle in October on a journey to link up with a satellite that's low on fuel to help keep it functioning in orbit past its expected end date.
  • Satellite internet company OneWeb is planning to affix grappling tech made by Altius Space Machines to its small satellites in low-Earth orbit to make it easier for them to be deorbited should they fail.

The catch: Experts agree space junk is a major threat to keeping space usable and open for nations and companies around the world, but it's not clear who is or should be responsible for cleaning it up, complicating the business case for these companies.

  • "There is no agreement as to who pays for debris removal," Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, told Axios. "You could argue that space being a public good, it should be the government that pays for it."
  • Some companies are also banking on the idea that Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb and others will succeed in launching thousands of new satellites and have the forethought to want to deorbit any failed satellites quickly.

Yes, but: There are also major technical challenges around building and launching any of these new systems.

  • Linking up with a dead satellite in orbit will be a risky procedure that needs to be exact in order to make sure the system doesn't create more debris in the process.

Go deeper: Yes, there really is a lot of space junk

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This year Boeing and SpaceX will push to launch astronauts to orbit for NASA after years of delays, in an attempt to end U.S. reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the International Space Station.

Why it matters: Up and coming space powers like India and China are making plays at sending astronauts into space while launching increasingly ambitious missions to the Moon as NASA has been riding on its Cold War-era achievements in human spaceflight.

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Earth from space. Photo: NASA

York Space Systems is offering a new series of missions using its standardized spacecraft to fit the needs of a variety of customers.

Why it matters: As more companies and government entities work to launch small satellites to orbit, this kind of standardization could help to cut down on development time, getting experiments, technology demonstrations and other payloads qualified for spaceflight more quickly.

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The earthly limit on satellite ambitions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios.

SpaceX, Amazon and others have high hopes for launching constellations of satellites that will provide internet to the globe, while some startups hope to nearly continuously beam back images from space.

Yes, but: The industry's growth is limited by the earthly half of the equation: ground infrastructure needed to receive data and control the satellites themselves.

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