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Japanese-led startup to clean up space debris

31 March 2015

Astroscale, a Japanese-led startup located in Singapore, plans to make the Earth's orbit a cleaner, safer place by removing the debris, according to a Nikkei Asian Review report yesterday.

Astroscale, established in 2013 by Nobu Okada, former president of an information technology company, aims to gather up the junk around our planet consisting of out-of-commission satellites, rocket remnants and other debris.

''The debris out there is a risk, but nobody does anything about it,'' Okada said. ''There was no effective technology for solving the problem, and no international organization has mandated debris removal. So, I made up my mind to do it myself.''

According to experts, some 150 million pieces of debris measuring more than 1mm in diameter and moving at a speed of 7-8km per second are floating around the earth.

According to a 2009 NASA study, some 19,000 large debris items over 10cm which have a typical mass of 1kg or more,  and 500,000 pieces of 1cm to 10 cm were orbiting in space.

The number of larger pieces has grown by 130 per cent in the past 20 years. It is estimated that 94 per cent of space debris comes from satellites and rockets launched by the US, Russia and China.

The space debris poses a threat to communication and weather satellites. In 2009, a Russian military satellite slammed into a US commercial satellite and in 2013, a small Ecuadorian satellite hit some Russian rocket debris, leaving it unusable.

For several years, scientists have been working on methods to combat the threat of junk and orbital debris collisions.

''A 1-kg object moving at 7-8km per second can severely damage a satellite's equipment and on collision could catastrophically break it up creating numerous fragments larger than 1kg. Yet, major space agencies, such as NASA and the European Space Agency, have yet not come up with a solution,'' Okada said.

Okada's plan envisages launching a satellite mothership into space, which contains six debris removal systems. These will be fired toward junk and will gather up particles with a special adhesive compound. The scrap-encrusted systems then plummet back to Earth burning upon re-entering the atmosphere.

Okada considers the key is the adhesive compound to which debris sticks and believes that there are ways to ensure the compound can withstand the harsh environment in space such as radiation and temperature swings.

The startup is eying satellite operators and national space agencies as potential clients, by providing risk-reducing service at reasonable rates.

Astroscale has an international staff about 30 and plans to open a development and production centre in Tokyo in April. It plans to launch its first debris-snagging satellite around the end of 2017.

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