What is the “Space Version of Road Service” to Protect Life on Earth and Future Space Development? [Consider the Future of Earth Together with Serika Ito #14]

Even we call “Space Development”, there are various purposes, technologies, and missions. In this series, we consider the current situation and the future of space development together with our Chief Dream Officer(CDO), Serika Ito.

The theme of this 14th is the space sustainability . We welcomed Ms. Miki Ito, Representative Director of Astroscale, which is engaged in the on-orbit service business including space debris recovery, and asked her about the relationship between the space environment and life on the ground, and about the trend of on-orbit services.

Sustainable Space Utilization is at the Heart of the SDGs.

©︎Koyama Chuya/Kodansha

Serika: It’s nice to meet you! I have stayed on the International Space Station (ISS). During my stays, I have had to change orbit to avoid collisions with space debris, and I feel that debris is very close to my heart..

Astroscale Representative Director, Miki Ito ©︎ Astroscale

Ms.Ito: Serika, it is nice to meet you. Space is a large three-dimensional expanse, but there are a limited number of orbits that are suitable for satellite operations, and more and more satellites are being launched into them.

When debris collides with a satellite, it not only destroys the satellite, but also scatters the satellite debris into thousands of pieces, which may then collide with other satellites, causing a chain of collisions known as the “Kessler Syndrome” Once it occurs, it can take hundreds of years for the orbit to recover.

Serika: In this series, we have been discussing with our guests the relationship between space technology and life on Earth and its contribution to the SDGs.

If the Kessler Syndrome occurs and GPS, satellite communications, and satellite data become unavailable, it will have a significant impact on our daily lives. What kind of business is Astroscale working on? Please tell me again!

Ms.Ito: What we are aiming for is a “space version of road services”. On the ground, there are information centers that monitor traffic rules and conditions, gas stations for refueling, and if a problem occurs, maintenance and towing services are available.

In order to create this kind of road service in space, there are four types of road services. “End-of-Life” have reached the end of their useful life are quickly de-orbit and recovered so that they do not become debris. “Active Debris Removal” is to reduce debris by recovering the upper stages of rockets and large satellites that have already served their purpose. “In-Situ Space Situational Awareness” observes the state of debris and object, and “Life Extension” extends the lifetime of satellites through orbit maintenance and attitude control.

In 2021, we launched the debris removal technology demonstration satellite “ELSA-d”.

Debris removal technology demonstration satellite “ELSA-d” ©︎ Astroscale

This was the first time in the world that a satellite was launched to demonstrate a series of key technologies for debris removal. The demonstration has progressed smoothly, and End-of-Life Services is now in the phase of launching a satellite to remove actual debris. In addition, we have been commissioned by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to conduct a project to observe the condition of the upper stage of a Japanese rocket in space by approaching it at close range with a satellite, with a view to recovering the rocket’s upper stage.

Serika: So you are developing various services to protect the space environment!

Ms.Ito: Yes. As you mentioned, space technology is widely used, and if space is not sustainable, the SDGs initiatives will not be possible. Protecting the resource of orbit will also make our lives on the ground sustainable.

©︎Astroscale

The Expansion of the Debris Recovery Business is Infinite

Serika: By the way, I think it is rare in the world that a player is trying to make a business out of debris recovery and other efforts to protect the space environment. How was Astroscale established?

Ms.Ito: Astroscale was founded in 2013 by CEO Mitsunobu Okada. He had established an IT company in Asia and was active in the global entrepreneurial city, but he was wondering what he really wanted to do. At that time, he remembered meeting astronaut Mamoru Mohri when he was 15 years old and receiving a handwritten message from him saying, “Space is where you will be active” and he thought, “I wanted to do space!” and that is what inspired him to pursue space.

©︎Koyama Chuya/Kodansha

There are many different fields when it comes to starting a business in space, including rocket and satellite data. So first, when he attended a conference, he found that one of the hot topics in the industry is the space debris problem, but although debris is being studied, no concrete solutions have been taken. Astroscale began when his thought, “If the problem is known, the business opportunity is here”.

Serika: I’m so happy to hear that his encounter with Mamoru Mohri was the catalyst for Astroscale’s founding! Were you also interested in space?

Ms.Ito: Yes, I was. I have loved arts and crafts since I was a child, and when I saw images of spaceships in movies, I was attracted by their beautiful design. I thought that there were visuals in space that did not exist on the ground. That is why space engineering became an option for me.

In my previous job, I was a researcher on a satellite development project. It was a project with a limited, so when I was looking for my next job, Astroscale was just about to build a manufacturing base factory in Japan. He was also looking for engineer, and I met Astroscale through an introduction from a professor who had been helping me.

Serika: What was your impression when you heard about the grand plan to recover debris?

Ms.Ito: I was excited and thought it was interesting! Nowadays, space development by private companies is becoming more widespread. However at that time, it was still very much a public sector job. In other words, the mainstream was to use the national budget to promote space development.

However, he said he wanted to do it in the private sector, as a business. In addition to the debris recovery business, I felt the limitless expansion and potential of space utilization in the future.

Ms. Ito is testing the debris removal technology demonstration satellite “ELSA-d” ©︎Astroscale

Future Space Utilization Supported by Space Version Road Service

Serika: Are there any additional technologies that will be needed in the future to achieve debris recovery?

Ms.Ito: One of these is to understand the situation in space. Astroscale satellites can get close to debris and assess its condition, but it is also important to get a more accurate picture of what kind of debris is present from the ground. Right now, we still can’t detect debris smaller than 10cm from the ground.

Serika: It seems that communication technology will also be necessary to understand the actual movements of spacecraft and debris in real time. Have you noticed any changes in your business, including the debris problem?

Ms.Ito: I have the opportunity to talk about debris in various places, and more and more people are raising their hands and saying they know about debris these days.

Serika: I seem to be seeing more and more of these topics in the news and other media. Is there anything that individuals can do to contribute to the debris problem?

Ms.Ito: Thankfully, we are receiving an increasing number of such questions. If you all speak up, it can move the global discussion. For example, the agreement on a statement to reduce debris in international discussions was a great first step in rulemaking.

The Long-Term Sustainability (LTS) Guidelines for Space Activities were unanimously adopted by 92 member states at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Main Committee in 2019.

I think this is the kind of recognition we are looking for. Of course, those who are interested in debris problems are welcome to join Astroscale!

Serika: Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the “five-year rule” announced by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which requires that satellites that have completed their role must be disposed of within five years.

Ms.Ito: New satellites are being launched one after another, and space development is progressing. I think it is a good trend that there is a growing momentum to use the space environment for a long time.

Serika: How do you think business will change if early debris recovert from satellite that have fulfilled their roles are put to practical use?

Ms.Ito: In my personal opinion, launching a satellite will shorten the operation cycle, which used to continue for about 5 to 10 years, and the satellite operation cycle will increase. When building something new,… for example, automobiles are tested on the ground, but satellites cannot be tested until they are launched into space, can they? If the number of satellite operation cycles increases, experiments, and technology demonstrations will progress, and business and technology development will accelerate.

Right now, most of those using space are in the technology industry, but companies in the clothing and beauty industries are also considering entering the space industry in anticipation of increased opportunities to stay in space. Just as personal computers have added various functions as the number of users has increased, space will be used in various ways, and I think the world will become a place that we can’t even imagine!

©︎Koyama Chuya/Kodansha

Serika: That’s exciting! I now understand that protecting the space environment will lead to future space development and innovation. Thank you very much!

The 14th guest in the series of conversations with Astronaut Serika was Miki Ito, President of Astroscale. We hope you understand the importance of sustainable space utilization. Please look forward to the next article for the heated discussion between the Serika and guest.

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