For more than 60 years, space exploration has given us discovery, innovation, life-saving technology — and junk. As the field of government and commercial entrants into the space market gets more crowded, the Earth’s orbit also becomes more crowded with debris. It’s simply not sustainable.
Enter the “space sweepers.” Japan-based Astroscale is testing technology to rendezvous with and capture decommissioned satellites. I caught up with my former NASA colleague, Chris Blackerby, who is now chief operating officer of Astroscale, to find out more about his job that merges technology, business, diplomacy, policy — with a clear vision for more sustainable space exploration.
It’s April, so we’re celebrating Earth Day and thinking about sustainability. But Astroscale is challenging us to think about sustainability beyond Earth. Talk to us about your mission.
It’s actually really appropriate to talk about environmentalism. One of the things I say all the time is that the orbital environment is just another natural resource. It’s something we rely on like the oceans or forest or air. It sustains satellites that provide us data to talk to family online, to make bank transfers, to understand the weather, to do everything we do at NASA Earth Science to understand the climate that relies on satellites. If we pollute that orbital environment, we are destroying a natural resource that provides us with this incredible benefit, the same way we would pollute the oceans or pollute the atmosphere. That’s what this company is really focused on. We’re really an environmental company, and that’s something that we try to impart to people all the time.
There are always people who say, “We’ve got environmental problems on Earth. Why are we dealing with environmental problems in space?” The fact is they’re linked. They’re totally interconnected, and we need space to understand the climate on Earth. We’re trying to make sure people are aware of the fact that space is not this ethereal thing that I can’t see, and I can’t touch, and so it doesn’t impact me – but instead to say, it literally impacts me every day. It impacts my family, my friends, the community, and the future. We’re focused on orbital sustainability for future generations.
It’s an exciting time for commercial space, with a renewed interest in commercial launches for example. Last month, you had a successful launch of the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration mission, or ELSA-d. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s next for that mission.
Launch itself was nerve wracking. We got delayed one day, when 20 minutes before launch, there was a technical problem. I wrote a note to the team later that night to say, you know, these launches are an adrenaline burst, and then you get this huge drop. Now, we have to get back up again.
We launched on March 22 on a Russian Soyuz, one of 38 satellites on a ride share. It was a perfect launch, orbital insertion was great, and it was released from the launch vehicle. One of the things that’s really interesting about our mission is we have multiple ground stations around the world. A lot of Earth observation missions just need to downlink data once every pass, so they’ll just downlink every 90 minutes. Our mission is going to be so complex, and the rendezvous and proximity operations that are involved in our mission need so much real time communication, you just need very frequent communication. Because of that, we’ve got 16 ground stations around the world. We almost have global connectivity.
Now, ELSA-d is operating nominally, and we’re just preparing for the demonstration missions, which will be in a few months.
What are some of the challenges that your engineers are trying to solve, or demonstrate, in this mission?
There are so many tough technical challenges. Very few companies have done things like this before. We know that there’s been rendezvous and connectivity of assets in space before, obviously spacecraft dock with the International Space Station and Apollo-Soyuz, for example. But how many have been done on an object that’s tumbling, or an object where there isn’t a link between the servicing vehicle and the client vehicle, where they’re talking to each other? How many have been done by a startup on a really tight budget, rather than a huge aerospace company or government? Very few, if any.
ELSA-d is really two satellites that were launched stacked together. One is a servicer designed to remove debris from orbit and is equipped with a magnetic capture system, the other is a client satellite, which is basically a piece of dummy debris and has a ferromagnetic docking plate to allow the capture.
What we’re trying to do, which you may have seen in our concept of operations video, is we’re going to demonstrate the capture of debris in three different scenarios. In the first demonstration, the servicer will release and then dock with the client satellite using the magnetic capture system. In the second demonstration, we’re going to release the dummy piece of debris again, and command it to spin in a three-axis tumble, and the servicer satellite will have to go around and try to find the docking plate and dock with it again. That capability to do close range rendezvous and proximity operations requires that we match the relative motion of the service and client satellites. To do guidance, navigation and control with eight different thrusters on the satellites is extremely difficult, and one of our biggest challenges. In the final demonstration, we will deliberately lose the debris satellite and re-locate, approach and recapture it from far-range, like we would have to in a full commercial service.
Building out the robotic arm capture capability was extremely difficult. Visualization capability was also really tough as we have several different cameras, both for far-range and near-range. Overall, the ELSA-d mission is very complex, and these kinds of captures have never been attempted before. But we hope these technical demonstrations will show commercial and government customers that we have the technical capabilities to provide this service.
As for my role, this is such an exciting, interesting job as it allows me to be connected to all aspects of the planning, and everything else from human resources to media to policy to politics to general strategy.
With all the many hats that you’re wearing, you’re also launching a podcast. Tell us about “Space to Grow.”
I’ve been on a bunch of podcasts. In this job I do a lot of outreach, and I love it. I like talking to people, hearing about what they’re up to, and what they’re working on in the same way you do. And I’m always looking for new ways to expand the awareness of what we’re doing.
My co-host Charity Weeden is awesome. She’s really well-connected to the whole space community. I said, “Let’s do it, you and I together.” It’s great to have two voices, gender balanced, across the world, with different ideas. We’ve been able to reach out and get cool guests, like former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and science TV host Emily Calandrelli, really fascinating people – and there are plenty more interesting guests coming up, so stay tuned! It’s a lot of fun to do.