Space junk removal could become a hot new startup category

With cosmic elbow room getting harder to come by, debris removal companies could be poised to thrive.
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· 5 min read

Last Monday, Russia launched a missile at one of its own satellites to test its anti-satellite capabilities, generating at least 1,500 units of debris. Some scraps flew so dangerously close to the International Space Station that the astronauts on board were forced to shelter inside their transport spacecraft (read: escape pods).

The test, which was condemned by space programs from NASA to the European Space Agency, was a dramatic reminder of a major interstellar problem: Space is increasingly full of junk.

And as cosmic elbow room becomes rarer, some companies see a business opportunity in becoming interstellar garbage collectors.

Since the beginning of the space age, government programs have left decommissioned satellites and empty rocket stages orbiting above Earth. Now, with a new space race emerging among private enterprises, the cosmos could grow even more crowded. In May, NASA estimated that there are over 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the planet, and over 100 million pieces of space debris larger than a millimeter.

“We only put satellites in very specific ‘neighborhoods’ or’ zip codes,’” Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas– Austin, told Emerging Tech Brew. “These are becoming more and more congested as a function of time. We don't have standard ways of planning and even coordinating the traffic...It’s a finite resource that’s not being holistically managed. We face a certain tragedy of the commons—there will be orbits that will not be usable on our current path because of such a thing.”

Junk luggers

The reason debris has piled up in space is twofold: 1) there’s not a lot of enforceable legal responsibility for entities to clean up after themselves in space and 2)like all things when it comes to space, it’s expensive and hard to do.

“It’s a multitude of issues. It is technically challenging, I don’t think we have solved all the technical challenges,” Carolin Frueh, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, told Emerging Tech Brew. “There’s the legal challenge, whom can I grab, so to speak? And then, of course, who pays for it?”

And with a bevy of companies including Amazon, Astra, Boeing, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Hughes Network, OneWeb, SpinLaunch, and Telesat filing with the FCC in November to launch nearly 38,000 broadband satellites in the US alone, the challenge of space junk is not going away.

Some satellite providers—like Starlink—deorbit their own satellites, while specialist companies like ClearSpace are sprouting up with inventive ways to collect space junk, like using a drone-like satellite to capture space junk using a net.

One of the biggest companies in space debris removal is Astroscale, which has raised over $204 million since its founding in 2013.

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Astroscale’s operation consists of a robotic arm called the ELSA-d, which connects to docking plates preinstalled on satellites, allowing the robotic arm to bring the decommissioned satellites low enough into Earth’s atmosphere that they burn up upon reentry. The company has worked with satellite broadband provider OneWeb in getting the ELSA-d in the field, outfitting at least 200 of its new satellites with Astroscale-compatible docking plates, Ron Lopez, president and managing director at Astroscale US, told us.

Astroscale is also working on bringing down legacy space junk through the use of docking stations, but it takes on those contracts on a case-by-case basis. That’s because legacy objects stem from a variety of national space programs, and lack a universal size or shape as a result.

Astroscale management team posing with the Elsa-D space junk removal tool


And Morpheus Space, which has raised $1.6 million since its founding in 2018, has carved out a hyper-specific role in space sustainability.

It uses onboard rockets to accelerate a satellite’s orbital decay, a process that naturally can take anywhere from a few days to thousands of years depending on where in the atmosphere it is located. The rockets allow satellite operators to navigate that descent, making sure the decommissioned satellite doesn’t intersect with another satellite’s orbit path.

The company declined to share how many clients it has, or whether the rockets have been installed on any satellites yet.

Looking ahead...

Despite these efforts, the quest to bring down legacy objects is moving slow for now. While taking down just five large pieces of debris can have a big impact on reducing space junk, according to studies like this recent one from NASA, there are still thousands of pieces in space all capable of damaging spacecraft.

Satellites within the atmosphere will fall back down to Earth (and burn up) naturally, but Frueh said the time it takes for this to happen can vary from days to 1,000 years, depending on how high up the satellite is.

And although international bodies like the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee released guidelines in 2007, like bringing down defunct satellites no later than 25 years after decommissions, Lopez said those recommendations aren’t up to date with the current space landscape. He also said they mean next to nothing without enforcement.

“It made sense when the rule was created, it doesn’t make sense today,” Lopez said. “That number needs to come down somewhere around five years, maybe lower. It can’t be too onerous. But we need to get down to that number for it to make sense.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.