Astroscale has a mission to secure the safety of future spaceflights through their novel technology development in space debris removal. Astroscale’s vision is to provide a full end of life and active debris removal services. As we all know, space debris removal is complicated, not only from a technological point of view, but also from the legal side.
Today we are joined by Astroscale’s Chris Blackerby who is the COO and Director at Astroscale.
Astropreneurs: First of all, thank you for taking time for this interview Chris, you have an amazing profile already from having several senior roles at NASA, including the most recent as NASA Attaché in Asia. Coming from NASA, how did you get involved with Astroscale?
Chris Blackerby: Thanks. Nice of you to say, but being surrounded by so many great engineering and business minds is a consistently humbling experience. I worked for NASA for nearly 15 years, the last 5 of which were in Tokyo. During my time as the NASA Attaché, I got to know many people involved in the burgeoning start-up sector in Japan, including Nobu Okada, the Founder and CEO of Astroscale. As my time with NASA in Japan was coming to a close, Nobu and I started talking about the potential of working together. Nobu is a great guy and I had always admired Astroscale. The chance to stay in Japan and help grow such a vibrant and dynamic team was too good to pass up!
Astropreneurs: Since its inception in 2013 in Singapore, Astroscale has grown significantly and already has offices in Japan, the UK, and most recently the US. How do you see Astroscale benefiting from having an office in these specific countries?
Chris Blackerby: There were several reasons why we initially chose Singapore for HQ. First, Nobu had been living there for several years at the time and had developed important connections and a network. Also, Singapore was starting to focus more attention on space and we were developing a strong relationship with the government.
As Nobu has many connections in Japan from his time in university and at the Ministry of Finance though, it made sense to set up our research and development (R&D) activities in Tokyo. Additionally, Japan has one of the largest space industry sectors in the world and is a leader in the conversation on space debris and space sustainability.
We recognize that the solution to the issue of space debris mitigation will not be solved by one country alone. The UK has been updating its national space policy and instituting regulations that are more friendly to business. This, coupled with the UK heritage in small satellite development and its proximity to the European market, made it a logical step for expansion. We opened the office in the UK in 2015 and have received a grant from UK Innovate to develop our ground control center in Harwell.
In April of this year we announced the opening of a US entity based in Denver, Colorado. The US is home to a thriving satellite and launch service market and there are significant opportunities for partnerships in the commercial sector. Establishing a presence in the US is important to facilitate future business. We chose Colorado as it is home to a vibrant space economy, the second largest in the US, that includes leading aerospace companies, space startups, and several universities with very highly regarded aerospace engineering schools.
Astropreneurs: How is the workload divided between the different offices?
Chris Blackerby: Singapore was our headquarters for over five years and oversaw much of the back office functions of finance and accounting. Though we moved HQ to Japan in February of this year, we will continue to use our Singapore office for global financial and administrative matters. Japan is home to our R&D facility and is our largest office with approximately 45 staff, most of whom are engineers. This is where the servicing satellite component of our upcoming mission, End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d), is being assembled and tested.
The UK office in Harwell oversees our Ground Control Center and will be the base of operations for our ELSA-d mission. Our UK office will also serve as the base of global business development and mission licensing as well potential future R&D. The US office will be primarily focused on building up business opportunities and engaging with policymakers, with the likelihood that we will also pursue R&D there in the future as well.
Astropreneurs: What is Astroscale’s current business model and how do you see it changing in the near future?
Chris Blackerby: Our two main business lines are End-of-Life (EoL) services and Active Debris Removal (ADR). For EoL, we are focused on limiting the risk of future debris. The rapidly developing commercial small satellite market boasts a number of companies that are making plans to launch hundreds to thousands of satellites into similar orbits and inclinations. These impending constellations will provide significant benefits to Earth in the form of communications and remote sensing, but the fact is that some will fail before they are able to be deorbited. In order to mitigate non-functioning satellites, we propose attaching a docking plate with ferromagnetic material prior to launch to all future satellites. We can then capture them using a different satellite that has a magnetic docking system and remove the threat from orbit.
The goal of ADR is to remove debris that is already in orbit. As most of the current debris was created by government launches, we are planning to partner with space agencies and international organizations to develop missions to remove large pieces of debris. Such debris can be up to thousands of kilograms in mass and could be considerably more difficult to remove than small satellites. Though the capture mechanism for ADR will be different (current debris is not magnetic!) we will be using many of the same technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations and deorbit that we use for EoL.
Astropreneurs: ELSA-d is an exciting mission that is coming up. Could you tell us a bit about it and how big of a milestone it will be for the company?
Chris Blackerby: ELSA-d, which is part of our EoL business line, is our first mission to test debris removal technologies. It will not only be a milestone for Astroscale but is expected to be a landmark mission in the global debris removal landscape.
ELSA-d consists of two spacecraft, a Servicer and a Client, which will be launched together on a Soyuz rocket in 2020. The Servicer is equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism, while the Client, which is basically a piece of dummy debris, includes a ferromagnetic plate which enables docking. The Servicer will repeatedly release and dock with the Client over several different demonstrations, proving our capability to successful locate, dock and remove debris from orbit.
The demonstrations in the mission will showcase three technical capabilities – initially the Servicer will release and then dock with the Client in a non-tumbling state. Second the Client will be released and we will institute a tumble so that we can prove that ELSA is able to dock to an out of control piece of debris. In the final phase, the Servicer will purposely lose the Client and search for it using ground-based and on-board sensors.
It is a very technically challenging mission and our team of engineers in Japan and the UK are working hard every day to ensure the mission is a success and a step toward a more sustainable and orbital environment.
Astropreneurs: Would you say the commercialization of the future product will be similar to ELSA-d?
Chris Blackerby: Yes. Once ELSA-d is completed we plan to produce many more of the same design for commercial use. While the overall satellite design and technology will remain the same, we will incorporate lessons learned from this first mission to improve costs and technologies.
Astropreneurs: Now aside from the actual technological development, Astroscale is also heavily involved in the policy case when it comes to space debris. What are the challenges that Astroscale is facing today in terms of space debris policy if any, and what would you like to see changed or put more in focus in this discussion?
Chris Blackerby: Our orbital environment is a natural resource. Just as we need to protect our rivers, forests and oceans on Earth, we believe our orbits need to be monitored and maintained in order to be sustainable.
As space is not the domain of any one country or international entity, both domestic and international regulations need to be implemented and enforced. We see that this is beginning to happen. The US, Japan and European countries are all considering regulations to limit future debris and even to remove current debris. Additionally, international organizations are discussing standards and policies that will lead to debris removal and higher future reliability of satellites. Going forward we are hopeful that multiple countries and international organizations will continue to work closely together on regulations and standards that lead to sustainability.
Creating and enforcing regulations in space at an international level takes a lot of time, effort and patience and we are an active participant in the discussions. There is progress though and we are hopeful that in several years, space debris removal will become routine work much like trash collection or roadside car service here on Earth.
Astropreneurs: Finally, what is your recommendation for Astropreneurs?
Chris Blackerby: Have fun, work hard, and live life with positivity and passion.
Posted by Shafa Aria