Man plans to clean up orbiting space debris

The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon's limb, in this handout picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew forty-five years ago, on December 24, 1968, courtesy of NASA. Credit: Reuters
The distant blue Earth is seen above the Moon’s limb, in this handout picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew forty-five years ago, on December 24, 1968, courtesy of NASA.
Credit: Reuters

Nobu Okada wants to save the planet from orbiting junk, which he says is in danger of cutting us off from the satellites we depend on and the outer space beyond. But to help fund that he needs to land a can of powdered Japanese soft drink on the Moon.

“Debris affects our daily lives. What if you can’t be prepared for storms, not watch the World Cup, if ships can’t use GPS?” he told a conference recently. “Our daily lives are totally dependent on satellite technology.”

Okada, 41, says his Singapore-based start-up Astroscale is just part of a dramatic shift in the “NewSpace” industry – the growth of private companies and new technologies challenging old, expensive government-driven programs. While small start-ups to giants like Google send ever more objects into space, Okada is tackling what Lux Research analyst Mark Bunger calls THE problem of NewSpace: clearing up what’s already there.

U.S. space agency NASA estimates that more than half a million bits of debris – from defunct satellites to marble-sized fragments like lens covers and copper wire – are orbiting Earth. Millions more are too small to track. And because they’re hurtling around at thousands of kilometres per hour, even small flecks of paint can be lethal when they collide – hitting the space shuttle, for example, smashing through a glass visor or tearing solar panels off satellites.

So far, this orbital mayhem has been largely the concern of governments and their space agencies. Okada says that’s no longer enough. “Somehow the amount of debris is still growing and there’s no clear solution yet,” he says.



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