While the US military is concerned about Chinese and Russian advances in space weaponry, new technology to counter these weapons is being developed, US officials said. Japan has become a key player. Photo: Handout

TOKYO – Astroscale, Japan’s space debris removal company, claims to have carried out “the world’s first commercial mission to prove the core technologies necessary for space debris docking and removal.”

Comprising two satellites tied together – one designed to remove debris from orbit and one to simulate a piece of debris – it was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March 2021. The “test capture” demonstration was completed in August 2021.

And now the company has been awarded the 2021 Satellite Technology of the Year Award for that “End-of-Life Services by Astroscale – demonstration” (ELSA-d) mission. The award was presented at the SATELLITE 2022 Conference and Exhibition, which was held March 21-24 in Washington, DC. The mission name refers to the end of the usable life of a satellite.

On March 19, it was announced that Seita Iizuka, the ELSA-d project manager, had received the Minister of State for Space Policy Award sponsored by the Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. Before joining Astroscale, Iizuka oversaw ground station operations at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

According to Astroscale, the commercial satellite that follows the demonstration, called ELSA-M (M for “Multi”), “will be capable of capturing multiple defunct satellites in a single mission. Technology development and planning are well underway to test the servicer’s multi-capture capability to provide debris removal solutions for constellation operators such as OneWeb.”

One Web is a global communications network with a fleet of 648 low-Earth-orbit satellites that are intended to provide high-speed, low latency, broadband internet services around the world when it is completed this year. It’s headquartered in London and has a joint venture with Airbus to build its satellites.

All it says it is?

But is Astroscale really the first commercial space debris removal company? That may depend on how you define commercial. Paul Kallender, a senior researcher at the Keio Research Institute, Shonan Fujisawa Campus, suggests that the hype overstates the case.

Kallender, who has been researching and writing about Japan’s space program for the last 25 years, points out that the country’s history of pursuing and acquiring objects in space goes back to the late 1990s.

The ETS-7 (Engineering Test Satellite No. 7), also called KIKU-7, which was equipped with a robotic arm, was launched by Japan’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA, the precursor of JAXA) in November 1997.

As now noted on JAXA’s website, KIKU-7 was “developed to acquire the basic technologies of rendezvous docking and space robotics which are essential to future space activities.”

KIKU-7 consists of two satellites named “Chaser” and “Target.” Each satellite is separated in space after launching and rendezvous docking experiment has been conducted three times, in which the Chaser satellite [was] automatically and remotely being piloted.

The KIKU-7 conducts the rendezvous-docking and space robotics experiments. In the rendezvous-docking experiment, the chaser satellite conducts rendezvous-docking with the target satellite by both automatic and remotely piloted controls, and in the space robotics experiments, unmanned space work is carried out by teleoperation.

KIKU-7. Image: JAXA

That was not a commercial project, but it bears a strong resemblance to Astroscale’s ELSA-d, doesn’t it? This is because, in Kallender’s words, Astroscale has been “piggybacking off old NASDA technology paid for by the Japanese taxpayer 25 years ago.”

ELSA-d used a magnetic docking mechanism, but Astroscale announced on April 4 of this year that it

has renewed its contract for a second year with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (“METI”) to research and develop extra-vehicular general-purpose robotic arm and hand technologies.

Robotic hand and arm technologies that can be affixed to spacecraft to perform complex servicing activities in orbit will be critical to the growing on-orbit servicing market to extend the life of satellites and to remove space debris, reducing operating costs for satellite operators and mitigating the creation of further debris.

In other words, a new robotic arm should outperform the company’s magnetic docking mechanism.

Competitive field

Astroscale is not without state-supported competition in the race for firsts in the general field. On February 26, 2020, the New York Times reported:

For the first time, one commercial satellite has grabbed hold of another one in orbit around Earth, demonstrating a technology that could help reduce the proliferation of space debris around our planet by enabling the repair and refueling of dying spacecraft.

‘”This is the first time in history a docking has been performed with a satellite that was not pre-designed with docking in mind,” Joe Anderson, a vice-president at SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, said during a telephone news conference.

On April 12, 2021, that company itself announced that

Northrop Grumman Corporation … and the company’s wholly-owned subsidiary, SpaceLogistics LLC, have successfully completed the docking of the Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2) to the Intelsat 10-02 (IS-10-02) commercial communications satellite to deliver life-extension services …

Northrop Grumman is the only provider of flight-proven life extension services for satellites, and this is the second time the company has docked two commercial spacecraft in orbit.

Northrup Grumman is also developing a Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV), about which it says: “With two long-reaching robotic arms created by DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense], the MRV will inspect, repair and augment satellites.”

Dual-use technology

Why would DARPA get involved?

On January 26, 2022, Breaking Defense writer Theresa Hitchens reported that “China’s SJ-21 satellite now ‘appears to be functioning as a space tug,’ pulling a dead CompassG2, or Beidou, navigation satellite out of the way of other satellites operating in the heavily populated Geosynchronous Orbit, according to a new analysis by commercial space monitoring firm ExoAnalytic Solutions.”

China’s SJ-21 ‘tugs’ a dead satellite out of GEO belt. Photo: Reddit

This builds, according to Gunter’s Space Page, on AOLONG-1, “an active space debris removal experiment launched by China’s new generation CZ-7/YZ1A launch vehicle in 2016. The Aolong 1 payload was developed by CALT [China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology] … to demonstrate the removal of a simulated space debris object by capturing the object and then bringing it to a re-entry trajectory to be burned up in the Earth atmosphere.”

Aolong means Roaming Dragon. As the Daily Beast put it in April 2017: “China just boosted a high-tech, mysterious new satellite into orbit. It might be a weapon. It might not be a weapon. There’s no way to be certain, either way – and that’s a problem for all spacefaring countries.”

Removing space debris or removing the reconnaissance and communications satellites of adversary nations, the technology required is the same.

Which brings us back to the question, What – and who – is Astroscale?

Japanese, US and UK management

Nobu Okada, Astroscale’s CEO. Photo: Astroscale

Astroscale’s senior management reflects the company’s close associations with the space and defense establishments of Japan, the US and the UK, and with international business and finance. Details from the company’s website include:

  • Nobu Okada, Astroscale’s CEO, has also served as a member of the Subcommittee on Space Industry at the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan and is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society of the UK. Inspired by his experience at a NASA camp for students when he was a teenager, Okada “used his personal funds as seed money and hired a team in Singapore in 2013 and opened an R&D office in Japan in 2015, a UK office in 2017, a US office in 2019, and an Israeli office in 2020, whilst raising US $300M capital. The team calls themselves ‘Space Sweepers’ and their mission is to reduce orbital debris and support long-term, sustainable use of space.”
  • Chris Blackerby, chief operating officer, “served as the NASA Attaché for Asia, the senior space policy official in the US Embassy Tokyo, from 2012-2017.”
  • Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer, was previously “director, spectrum architecture at OneWeb, where he oversaw mission design, systems engineering and spacecraft performance [and] held mission design and systems engineering roles at NASA and Google.”
  • John Auburn, managing director, Astroscale Ltd, UK, previously worked as a flight dynamicist at the European Space Operations Center. He has also served as chairman of UKspace (the UK’s industry trade association).
  • Ron Lopez, president and managing director, Astroscale US Inc, “started his career as an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force, serving as the focal point for space situational awareness capability development at Air Force Space Command’s Space Control Division.” He later worked at Boeing and “led the defense and space Asia Pacific sales team at Honeywell Aerospace.”
  • Miki Ito, general manager, Japan, previously “worked as a researcher at NESTRA [Japan’s Next-generation Space system Technology Research Association] where she participated in the HODOYOSHI-3 and HODOYOSHI-4 microsatellites projects developed with the University of Tokyo.

Obviously, there is no clear line separating civilian, government and military space technology, and there’s plenty of career overlap.

Astroscale is also working with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan’s top defense contractor and rocket maker, “on the technical aspects required to advance sustainable space operations [including] debris removal methods.”

Interview with Paul Kallender

I discussed this with space and defense expert Paul Kallender at a well-ventilated coffee shop in Tokyo:

Q: Based on your two and a half decades of research, what do you think of Astroscale?

Kallender: I think it is fair to say that Astroscale is pushing ahead with the technologies deployed by NASDA a quarter of a century ago. Some of their claims to be the first might be technically correct, but they aren’t really doing amazing things technologically.

What they are doing is providing an excellent cover story for Japan’s space program, which has shifted into making sure it is retesting and redeveloping its already vast range of advanced offensive counterspace technologies to have them available for potential warfighting by the end of this decade.

Q: So, it is dual-use technology, civilian and military, after all?

Kallender: Ninety percent of space technologies are dual-use in one way or another, and it just so happens that Japan has – not entirely by chance, perhaps, shall we say – focused on developing and testing dual-use satellite killer technologies, of which the Hayabusa probes are the most famous example.

The key point about Japan’s latest space policy is that it deeply integrated with both Japan’s and US national security policy. The 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines clearly identified space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic domain as warfighting domains. Along with alignment with US national security policy and space policy, which denotes space as a warfighting domain, the latest Japanese space policy clearly states that space superiority is the highest goal of Japan’s space programs.

Q: There is some urgency about this?

Kallender: There certainly is. A recent wargame in which the PRC [People’s Republic of China] was going to coerce Taiwan saw the opening confrontation in space to establish space superiority, in which Japan and the US were overwhelmed when the PRC deployed all of its “orbital debris maintenance,” “refueling,” “inspection and monitoring” and “space junk clearing” satellites – I counted 108 PRC satellites in all – and overwhelmed the allied response.

Bearing in mind that the de facto hitherto undeclared counterspace arms race of yesterday is now kicking into gear, it behooves Japan to brush up its already extensive tool kit of offensive counterspace to deploy and test its own satellite attack capabilities.

Q: But space debris removal is also an urgent matter, isn’t it?

Kallender: Of course. But never forget that Japan’s space program has a long history of dressing up the acquisition and testing of extremely impressive new capabilities and programs ahead of legislative changes (remember Japan’s “helicopter destroyers” that looked like aircraft carriers, that then, well, turned out to be, by happy coincidence or something else, aircraft carriers after all) with a lot of bunting and window dressing.

What’s interesting to me is that how Astroscale have managed to revive old programs and breathe fresh life into them. For example, their relationship with MHI is highly significant because MHI were very interested in developing and testing similar technologies 15 years ago through what was then dressed up as the “SmartSat” program, but, back in those days, the Ministry of Finance canceled the program because, in a moment of rare clarity, they could not find any non-military justification for the program. MHI has its fingers in a lot of new technologies, some of them fronted by university programs, but the point is that Astroscale’s manufactured PR halo is also backed by synergistic partnerships.

I have no doubt that the huge fuss Japan is making about it being a good global neighbor earnestly trying its best to clean up space junk is absolutely valid. However, Astroscale is also one of about eight dual-use offensive counterspace programs dressed up as something else that I am tracking, and Japan’s MOD [Ministry of Defense], ie, JSDF [Japan Self-Defense Forces], are among Astroscale’s end-users.

Image: Facebook

The growing threat of space debris

According to DEWESoft, an engineering data company, there were about 4,550 active satellites in orbit around the earth as of September 1, 2021. Of these, 1,655 were owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, 288 by OneWeb Satellites, 129 by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, 125 by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, 87 by the US Air Force, 75 by Iridium Communications (a private company that serves the US Department of Defense), 63 by the US National Reconnaissance Office (an agency of the Department of Defense) and 60 by NASA. Most of the rest were owned by smaller countries and private interests.

In addition, there are about 3,000 inactive satellites in orbit around the earth, tens of thousands of pieces of debris large enough to be tracked and millions of fragments that are too small to be tracked but that could cause significant damage if they hit an active satellite.

There are also some potentially hostile satellites disguised as garbage trucks, and there are bound to be more.

As the NASA Headquarters Library says on its Space Debris page: “The space around our planet is filled with rubbish. It’s time to take out the trash!”

Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research, Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667