Will Giant Sticky Space Roombas Solve Our Space Junk Problems?

Company gets $35 million in venture funding to tidy up the sky.



Space junk is annoying now—small objects have already popped holes in the International Space Station—but it will become an increasingly serious problem as we enter the era of cheap, frequent commercial launches. (Pretty solid work in April, by the way, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Kudos.) 

Just in the last month, debris was spotted flaming over the Sri Lankan coast and a rogue object was briefly blamed for knocking out Japan's new research satellite (unfairly, as it turned out).

Enter Astroscale, the Singaporean company that just received $35 million in funding to work on clearing out some of the estimated 150 million pieces of junk floating around the ol' blue marble—especially antique microsatellites, which have a relatively short two- to five-year lifespan and will soon be deployed by the dozens and hundreds for all kinds of reasons, including mapping and communications.

Here's the plan:

Step 1: Find the junk. Astroscale will do this using a Japanese microsat called OSG IDEA 1 launched on a Russian rocket, designed to map objects less on a millimeter across—including stuff that's not visible to ground-based systems.

Step 2: Send up sticky space roombas to roam around cleaning up the junk, especially those discarded microsats. ADRAS 1 spacecraft will be covered in adhesive which will grab debris and then pull the stuff that's in low-earth orbit down to be incinerated on re-entry. Junk that's higher up will be nudged away from high traffic areas. 

Step 3: Profit. 

Last month, Astroscale received a big second infusion of cash, primarily from a Japanese government-based public-private partnership, but also from the private venture firm JAFCO. The first round of funding was $7.7 million in venture money a little over a year ago. The company is aiming to launch the ADRAS in 2018.

Astroscale certainly isn't the only player in this area: Last week, NASA announced an investment in a Brane Craft, a 2D membrane designed to drag space junk down to burn up, and some Russkie academics have a few ideas as well. 

Looks like the market for space maids is heating up.

P.S. Space junk also causes ongoing diplomatic problems, since the U.S. has historically had more and better info about floating debris than other nations and also created more than its share of the man-made portion of that debris. Some fear space junk could even trigger global war if strategic sats are destroyed under suspicous circumstances. So we'd better get to work tidying this place up.

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  1. Tragedy of the space commons to be remedied with space flypaper.

    1. Sounds like a fantastic opportunity for graft. Every scumbag in the galaxy will be going after this “for the people money”

  2. Seems like an orbital recycling operation could do a brisk trade in raw materials and recovered components.

    1. That would be more difficult that you might think. The reason stuff burns up on reentry is that it is traveling really fast. Most of the fuel that rockets carry is not to get into space. Rather is is to accelerate up to orbital velocity. A recycle operation would need to be able to decelerate the junk to a velocity where it wouldn’t burn up in the atmosphere, and that would require a lot of fuel. So the rocket would need to carry that fuel up there, and the fuel to lift the fuel, and the fuel to lift the fuel that lifts the fuel… Not gonna happen. Not worth it economically.

      1. But isn’t the whole problem that this stuff is all over the place up there? I’m thinking of a facility in a passive orbit that just grabs stuff as it flies by.

        1. I’m thinking of a facility in a passive orbit that just grabs stuff as it flies by.

          Dr. Buzz Aldrin would like a word with you.

          1. “Listen, Aldrin, I’m not as laid back as people think. Now here’s the deal: I’m going to play, and you’re going to float there and like it.”

        2. Because space is not a place. Near Earth Orbit encompasses a shell that is a couple of hundred miles thick and billions of cubic miles in volume. Passive systems to sieve anything in a stable orbit in that shell would take hundreds of years to get most of it.

          1. Thanks, T. Much more succinctly put than my effort.

          2. So it’s like a big donut with almost zero calories? Sign me up!

          3. Very true. Also, there’s the question of why you would bother to retrieve stuff from orbit, when it’s generally available much more cheaply down here on earth.

            1. Material recovery is a very secondary consideration in this. It’s the worry about random debris colliding with and damaging your brand new million-dollar satellite, or punching a hole in your crewed vehicle.

          4. Because space is not a place.

            Ugh. Sun Ra has a sad

        3. It doesn’t work like that. The lower the orbit, the faster the object must travel to stay in it. So you could put something in a slower orbit, but it would have to be many miles further out. Whatever is catching the junk would have to be traveling at nearly the same speed to stay in orbit if it is going to be close enough to grab it.

          1. ^This. Thanks.

          2. Or you just need an orbit with higher eccentricity. Nothing says you have to be in the same plane of the junk, just that you need some intersections.

        4. Imagine the Gulf Stream were full of jetsam and flotsam, and you want to hoover it up. You can’t just put a drifting barge in the water and pick up everything that floats by, because the barge is drifting at the same speed. So you have to have a powered boat.

          The problem with a powered spaceship traipsing around is that by moving, orbital mechanics dictates that it will change orbit, going higher if moving faster, going lower if moving slower. Then it’s no longer with the junk it wants to pick up.

          Orbits is tricksy.

          1. Both interesting replies. Thanks sarc and scarecrow.

          2. “Faster” is both higher and lower unless you work really hard at minimizing you eccentricity. That’s where it starts fucking with my head. If you just speed up you can achieve everything from a higher perfectly round orbit to a really spectacular deorbiting depending on where you point the nozzle.

            1. It does get confusing. Low orbits are faster, but you’d sort of think that accelerating (at least in the direction of motion) would move you higher.
              I think that it helps to think of it in terms of kinetic and potential energy. Though gravitational potential being negative helps confuse things some more.

              1. Low orbits are faster, but you’d sort of think that accelerating (at least in the direction of motion) would move you higher.

                That’s exactly what happens. A circular orbit occurs when the acceleration imparted by gravity is exactly equal to (v^2)/r, which happens to be the acceleration required to keep something moving in a circle. When you accelerate an object that is in a circular orbit, the force required to maintain the circle at that radius is higher than that from gravity, and the object’s trajectory curves less than that required to maintain the orbit. So it begins to move outward.

                As it moves outward, the direction of the gravitational force vector ceases to be perpendicular to the direction of the velocity vector. Thus gravitational force acts to reduce the radial component of the object’s velocity. The object slows down.

                If left unmolested, the object will continue to travel outward, slowing down.

                Should it reach the point where gravity has completely canceled the radial component of the velocity. At this point the angular component will be so low that gravitational acceleration will be greater than v^2/r, and the object will start to descend. It will be in an elliptical orbit oscillating between two altitudes, going too slow to maintain a stable circular orbit at the peak altitude and too fast at the lower altitude.

                1. Yeah, I get the physics. But for some reason, I always have to think about it for a bit to get over the idea that you accelerate to end up at a lower velocity.

                  1. But for some reason, I always have to think about it for a bit to get over the idea that you accelerate to end up at a lower velocity.

                    Just remember the nursery rhyme from Integral Trees:

                    “East takes you Out.
                    Out takes you West.
                    West takes you In.
                    In takes you East.
                    Port and Starboard bring you back.”

            2. Faster is generally taken to mean prograde thrust, i.e. in the direction of travel. Assuming that all if our thrusting can be treated as an impulse for simplicity, the effect of a prograde burn is to raise the orbit at the point opposite the burn. In order to circularize you always need two burns.

              Two basic rules of orbital mechanics:

              1) With a single burn your orbit always passes thru the exact point of the burn.
              2) Your burn impacts the opposite point of the orbit and your orbital ellipse changes to accommodate your unchanged burn point and the modified opposing position.

          3. Flotsam, not jetsam.

            1. Eh? Both.

            2. I’ve frequently wondered to myself what precisely the difference is between flotsam and jetsam.

              1. I think that Tolkein made those words up to describe the shit in the flood of Saurman’s ork pits.

              2. Jetsam is stuff deliberately dumped from boats Flotsam is floating stuff left from a shipwreck.

                1. Jetsam = was jettisoned.

                  Flotsam = just floating around.

                  Jetson = futuristic hijinx.

              3. Flotsam is floated off, by accident. Jetsam is jettisoned, on purpose. Both remain floating. I don’t know if sunk but still partially above the surface counts or not.

                Wikipedia has a nice short summary, along with a couple of rarer terms for stuff on the bottom of the ocean.

          4. Orbits is tricksy.

            So…moar funding?

        5. I’m thinking of a facility in a passive orbit that just grabs stuff as it flies by.

          And then does what with it? You’d still need some way of getting it back down to Earth to be recycled/ reused or whatever.

          Also, most satellite components don’t have much reuse value anyway, so you’re pretty much left with either refueling/ refurbishing the satellite in orbit, or recycling the aluminum. As it stands right now, it’s more economical to just launch a new satellite when one runs out fuel/ stops working.

      2. Why waste all that energy deorbiting it?

        Every pound recycled in orbit is a pound that does not have to be lifted above the atmosphere and accelerated to orbital velocity.

        1. ^^^ is tongue in cheek, BTW

          1. Why is that such a dumb idea?

            1. It’s the grabbing it and getting it to a useful orbit that’s the problem. SciFi makes spaceflight look as easy as driving a car. The physics are a total bitch.

              1. So like flying junk would impart inertia to whatever catching mechanism you had and make maintaining orbit a tricky proposition?

                1. That, too. As T pointed out you either devise an orbit which will cause the recycler to eventually intersect the maximum amount of junk possible, but it would take years (lots and lots of years) for it to intersect that junk – and that would not be every single piece of junk, only those within whatever shell your orbit is. There are no magical “passive orbits”. There are just orbits.

                  At this point, unless someone else wants to take over, you’re just going to have to trust that people who understand the complexity of the problem are working on it. Did I mention the complexity of the problem already?

                  1. No I get that it’s a thing. I’m not exactly a rocket scientist, obviously.

              2. SciFi makes spaceflight look as easy as driving a car.

                Easier than that, if a homeless hobo child can just jump in the driver’s seat and do all kinds of low-altitude maneuvering and interstellar stuff.

      3. Uh, I think if we can rendezvous with an old Russian space station to refuel for a trip to the other side of the moon to stop an asteroid I think we can match orbit and velocity with space garbage to pick it clean of the good stuff.

        1. to pick it clean of the good stuff.

          You stay the hell away from my Moon Stones. I have a Nidorino to evolve.

          1. I’m’a let you finish, Los Doyers, but Clefairy is the best choice for Moon Stone evolution of all time. OF ALL TIME

            1. Meh, Clefable is a boring, normal-type Pokemon. The only normal-type I’ll waste my time on is Snorlax. I CHOOSE YOU

        2. Somehow all these drills that depend on gravity, not just mass, to counter their drilling forces work just great!

          1. I don’t think this is the proper forum to discuss how awesome that movie is.

      4. So the rocket would need to carry that fuel up there, and the fuel to lift the fuel, and the fuel to lift the fuel that lifts the fuel… Not gonna happen. Not worth it economically.

        This is why I suggest (below) just getting the material crammed together. Start with micro-sats that collect mm sized material, then larger sats that gather those, and larger sats that gather those + all the dead junk orbiting. Collect them all into a mass (or set of masses) that can be used as anchors for a space tether.

        Your initial funding comes from people wanting to clean up space. Further funding comes from offering orbital lifts to satellites from low earth orbit.

    2. Seems like an orbital recycling operation could do a brisk trade in raw materials and recovered components.

      The idea of using ‘Rods from God’ as gigantic space garbage skewers is pretty humorous.

  3. Space junk killed George Clooney, too.

  4. *cue Dave Matthews*

    Well, thanks, KMW. That’s going to be in my head all day now.


    1. KM-W is the last person at Reason who should be writing about anything space-related. Just saying.

      1. I have it on good authority she gets her hair styled in the Megabrantis Cluster

        1. +1 Ski Boxing President

  5. I, for one, welcome our new robot janitors.

  6. As long as there are also space cats to ride said roombas.

  7. Great. Now the Headline writers are getting in on the overly complicated masturbation euphemisms.

    1. These masturbation euphemisms are getting newsworthy!

  8. Pretty solid work in April, by the way, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Kudos.

    What’s Bigelow, chopped liver?

    1. Tagalong.

      1. Mmm, pancit canton…

    2. You jest, but Bigelow is, I believe, the key player in commercial space flight. Even if Spacex, Blue Origin, etc. succeed in developing commercial manned vehicles, they’ll need some place to go and something to do other than shuttling government employees back and forth to their overpriced orbital boondoggle. That’s where Bigelow’s commercial space station comes in. They’re the key to getting government out of the picture.

      1. tl;dr: chopped liver?!?

  9. Sterilize imperfection.

  10. There was a fairly not-awful anime about this.

    1. Hey everybody! Check out this weeb over here!

    2. Right, I’ve seen that series. It’s actually not awful, which is about all you can ask of anime.

  11. Want to meet a girl? come on
    the Best adult Dating site!

    1. Karinka, you have been a busy girl today for sure.

      1. If she doesn’t look like the sex robot from Rick and Morty, I will be very disappointed.

        1. “You think it looks ‘cool,’ huh? That’s why you want it?”

          1. I’ll give you 5 schmekels and throw in a fart!

  12. …the era of cheap, frequent commercial launches.

    Funny, when I was in college in the mid to late 90’s this era was “right around the corner… within a few years… you’ll all have companies tripping over themselves to hire you Aerospace Engineering students by the time you graduate! It’ll be a new golden age! Etc., etc.”

    Here I am 20 years later, still waiting. I’m thinking this is like flying cars: always “just 20 years away!”\

    microsatellites, which have a relatively short two- to five-year lifespan and will soon be deployed by the dozens and hundreds for all kinds of reasons, including mapping and communications.

    They were saying that 20 years ago too.

    Don’t get me wrong, if some private company wants to clean up LEO, more power to them. I wish them luck. But when it comes to the “era of cheap, frequent commercial launches” and commonplace micro-satellites, I’m not holding my breath.

    1. CheapER but not cheap like an airplane ticket. Looks likee after NASA and Lockmart fucked up delta clipper we’re going to finally have sigmificant and cost effective reuse.

    2. Cool, another Aero E! When I was in school in the late 80s, they were still recovering from Challenger and the damage NASA had done to private spaceflight with promoting the Space Shuttle as the only way to orbit for commercial and other payloads.

  13. Maybe, just maybe, if China can restrain itself from blowing up even more shit in orbit we won’t have much to worry about. In literally one shot, they managed to ruin space more than the U.S. and Russia did in the decades prior.

    Way to go China. Way to go.

    Link to one of many stories on this problem.

    1. Yup, but just change the story to russia and you’ve got a popular movie!

  14. So how does anyone make money off this? Are the insurers going to pay a cleanup fee?

    Better way is to use lasers anyway.

  15. There is potential for BIG BUSINESS here, but they are doing it wrong. They should not be de-orbiting the junk after it is collected.

    In any case, here is the problem:

    While the space junk up there is a nuisance, the mass actually has intrinsic value: Momentum and Position.

    Let’s say you have a large mass anchoring a tether in space. The large mass loses a bit of orbit velocity, imparting a large amount of velocity on the new payload. You correct the velocity of the tether mass with slow propulsion like Hall Engines. Essentially, you are banking a long (efficient) propulsion time on the ion drives in the mass, and then spending that momentum in a short time on a payload lift.

    Getting enough mass to orbit that it is an efficient bank of momentum is expensive. Instead of dropping all these microsats out of orbit, they should be collected into a mass that can be slowly accumulated. Instead of spending money boosting your propulsion AND mass into orbit, or you can use mass that has already been orbited. In a sense you are recycling propulsion that already happened.

    If you want to invest in my brilliant idea, please send me money with a check addressed to CASH.

    1. Let’s say you have a large mass anchoring a tether in space.

      I forgot to add a sentence after this one: Periodically, payloads are launched into space and connect with the tether which then lifts the payload into higher orbit.

      The real question of profitability is whether the cost of maneuvering the microsats into a single mass would outweigh the cost of just launching an equal sized mass into the orbit you want. That said, this is a way to bootstrap a big business. First you get funding to support launching the “Cleanup and Mass Assembly” into space. You get that funding from the many businesses who are concerned about how dirty LEO is becoming. You are using that project to fund a capital investment in your orbital lift service.

      1. I’ve never much cared for tethers. Just have an orbital transfer tug that uses high isp electric thrusters to move your leo payload where you want it. That assumes time to station isn’t critical.

        Your only tradeoff is going to be whether you want lowest propellant use (highest Ve possible) or best overall tug mass/propellant used in which case you want Ve on the order of your desired deltav.

        1. A tug seems so much less efficient. You have to spend dVs to get both the payload and tug to higher orbit, then spending similar fuel to get the whole tug back down to lower orbit for the next lift. You are spending that fuel every single cycle, which seems to be a waste. With a tether, your lifter is only spending the fuel once to get to orbit, and then a smaller amount to maintain station with each lift. Both actions can be done with the most efficient low-Dv/s drive system available to you.

          The other benefit of a tether is that over time, you can accumulate more mass. You can collect boosters that would normally be cast back into reentry, but which you already spent propellant getting into space.

          Note that this would lead to different launch behavior and design. Today we deorbit a lot of the launch materials because there is nothing to do with them in space. Originally, there was talk of bringing the External Tank into orbit with the STS. Yes it would have been more expensive in fuel, but the weight of the 131 ETs would have gone a long ways towards providing a reliable lift mechanism.

  16. “Material bahan baku industri besi dan baja di dalam negeri sebagian besar harus impor seperti billet dan slab yang berarti rentan terhadap perubahan nilai tukar,”

    konstruksi baja lantai 2
    jasa konstruksi jembatan

  17. Menurut data Platts SBB dan The Steel Index, tren kenaikan harga besi dan baja sudah terlihat sejak awal Desember 2013-Januari 2014 yang melonjak pada kisaran 10 persen-15 persen.

    Daftar Harga Besi Pipa Baja Schedule 80 Dari Distributor Pabrik
    Daftar Harga Besi Unp Baja Profil Kanal Distributor Pabrik

  18. harga besi dan baja sangat erat kaitannya dengan perubahan nilai tukar (kurs).
    Hal ini terjadi mengingat bahan baku (bahan mentah) masih harus diimpor (seperti slab, billet, dan lain-lain.

    konstruksi baja lanjut
    jasa konstruksi

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