‘Roadside assistance’ in space: on-orbit servicing and debris management

Author: Jessica Holland


Humans have been launching machines into space for over six decades now, and the number of objects in Earth’s orbit has been growing exponentially in the current era of smallsats, payload ridesharing and mega-constellations. Nine thousand or so satellites have been launched since Sputnik, but there are also 34,000 objects larger than 10cm in orbit, according to recent ESA figures, and 128 million measuring between 1mm and 1cm.

John Auburn, Chief Commercial Officer and UK Director of the orbital debris removal company Astroscale, cites these figures as evidence that “the need to remove debris from space is no longer a choice, but a necessity”. He points out that “one small speck of paint can damage a solar array and potentially cause a satellite to malfunction”, and that tens of thousands more satellites are expected to launch in the next 10 years. In order for these missions to function without “continual threat of collision”, it is necessary, Auburn says, to “clear some of the existing pieces of debris and prevent new debris from forming by ensuring larger objects do not collide in the first place”.

Orbital debris poses plenty of its own challenges, requiring technical developments in order to track, capture and propel objects out of congested orbital highways, and regulatory developments to clarify questions of liability. Jonas Radtke, CEO and co-founder of Space Situational Awareness services company OKAPI:Orbits, says that, from his point of view, “the legal challenges are currently more difficult, because it is an issue on a global scale, which requires cooperation between many very different stakeholders, including nations, industry and the military”.

Astroscale’s John Auburn agrees that progress is needed on this front. “Currently there is no global regulatory framework that governs orbits or the removal of satellites once they have reached their end of life,” he says. Although governments and international organisations are considering solutions, he adds, “governments alone will not solve the problem of debris removal. There needs to be collaboration among industry, academia and government”.

What’s needed, according to Max Lange, Project Manager for Advanced Projects & Products at Airbus, is a legal framework that operates “more like offshore or aviation regulations, with clear liabilities and responsibilities assigned to actors”. There’s also a need, he says, for “up-to-the-day” data on objects in orbit, including debris. An upgraded catalogue of “more and smaller” objects in space is also something that Jonas Radtke says will be the “next big step” for the sector, adding that “this will drastically reduce the risk [of collisions]”.

One guideline that has been helping to shape the industry is the ISO 24113 standard laying out space debris mitigation requirements. It was recently tightened, so that satellites must have a 90% absolute probability of successfully de-orbiting at the end of life, regardless of all other factors. Although the standard isn’t enforced by law, it has been adopted by agencies such as NASA and ESA, which in turn have contracts with independent companies such as Italian New Space solutions company D-Orbit.

D-Orbit’s CTO Lorenzo Ferrario points out that this means that satellite manufacturers are having to raise the bar on reliability, which could require “extra redundancies or new subsystems” to be added to satellites. But, he adds, mega-constellation manufacturers can comply with these regulations –ensuring that nine of out ten of their satellites will de-orbit successfully once they have stopped functioning – and still create a whole lot of space trash.

That’s one of the reasons, Ferrario says, that “on-orbit servicing is going to grow, and on-orbit servicing is actually much broader than [debris removal]”. The growth of defence and security capabilities in space is a second factor behind the growth of the sector, he says, and a third is that larger geostationary satellites, for example, may function for decades while technology evolves around them. “The needs of customers change, so having a service that is able to update part of the satellite, that is somewhere we might be going as an industry.”

This new chapter for on-orbit servicing (OOS) is already beginning. A Russian rocket took off on 9 October 2019 carrying a vehicle designed to dock with an ageing satellite and extend its life. Created by Space Logistics LLC, MEV 1 will take over propulsion for a communications satellite in geostationary orbit that is running low on fuel. When NASA’s new Lunar Gateway space station starts to be assembled in orbit around the moon in the early- to mid-2020s, this will provide additional opportunities for the fledgling OOS sector.

There are all sorts of technical challenges to be met, however, for the full potential of the OOS sector, including debris removal and space traffic management, to be unlocked. According to Max Lange, “robotics is the key enabler”, and “highly manoeuvrable spacecraft and robust AOCS [attitude and orbit control systems] will also play a big role.” He says that “Europe needs to catch up with what’s already going on in the USA and Russia… and that concerns capabilities for space situational awareness, but also on-orbit inspection, refuelling, orbit transfer or de-orbiting, and finally in-space assembly”.

From the point of view of D’Orbit’s Lorenzo Ferrario, “the lack of a standardised interface” for servicing vehicles to attach to satellites already in orbit is “probably the biggest issue in this market”. Whether the mission involves refuelling or de-orbiting, he explains, “it would be extremely useful if all the new satellites that we launch would somehow be designed to be serviced – if the industry could get to a standard mechanical interface or grappling point. For an active debris removal service supplier, it would be a huge help in performing the mission”.

If this and other technical challenges are unlocked, if satellite owners and operators fully understand the value of maintaining and upgrading their devices in orbit, if databases of objects in orbit are improved and clear global regulations are put in place, the opportunities for OOS and adjacent sectors are immense. The market research firm Technavio estimates that revenue from debris monitoring and removal alone will amount to US$2.7bn by the early 2020s. And as John Auburn of Astroscale points out, this activity will also ensure the health of the broader space sector for decades to come.

“Humankind is wholly reliant on satellite technology,” Auburn adds. “Without [capabilities relating to] position, navigation, timing, weather forecasting, remote sensing and communications, we would not have the modern society we enjoy today. If we do not have access to clean orbits, we lose out on the opportunity to explore and make our lives better here on Earth.”

Keen to learn more on these subjects? Join us on the following session on Space Tech Expo Europe’s Industry Conference on Wednesday November 20: