So here's a potential business model for this: salvage rights.
When ships sink, the owner generally still retains ownership of any property. Sometimes the location of the wreck is known. Sometimes it needs to be found. It can cost a lot of money to find a wreck and recover any property.
So salvage rights are a principle of maritime law such that whoever does this is entitled to a reward commensurate with the value of the goods recovered (eg 10%).
I imagine there are orbital slots that are essentially unusable because of space debris (eg Project West Ford ). If orbital slots are sufficiently scarce then these could have value. At some point it may become commercial to spend the effort cleaning up an orbit and making it available. Companies could then be compensated for the value they create this way.
I do believe this will still require a dramatic decrease in launch costs, as in orders of magnitude more. But we'll see.
My personal belief (and hope) is that the future of getting into orbit is orbital rings . If so, that completely changes the game because cleaning up an orbit essentially becomes a problem of just holding up a giant "paddle" (for lack of a better word) that is fixed to a point on Earth (essentially) and just letting the debris hit it.
Its actually called Planetes, which means "wanderers", and was the term the ancient Greeks used for the "wandering stars", i.e. other planets. I cannot recommend it highly enough! It starts out pretty slapstick, but if you're looking for something more thoughtful, just stick it out until after the ninja episode. I promise it's worth it.
At the speeds those things whiz by, what sort of materials are there that can withstand impacts and not create more debris? Or do they try to do it via relative speeds and say let them hit the "paddle" at 50mph? And in that case, might it not be more effective to have hunting "nets" to collect the objects?
First, a lot of space debris is small. I'm talking like flecks of paint. That's an issue at high speed and this has hit the ISS .
Obviously there's the conservation of momentum to deal with. That fleck of paint has a decent amount of momentum but that's fairly easily absorbed by a couple of tons of material fixed to an otherwise rigid body.
You'd probably attach it via cables and if, somehow, enough momentum was delivered to that "paddle" that it would tear off the cables would just let it go.
If the paddle is fixed to the ring and is let go, it's just going to fall to Earth even with any added momentum, in which case it'll burn up in the atmosphere.
The more dangerous debris is larger stuff. Like there are dead parts of rockets, even smaller stuff like bolts. These pose extra challenges but a lot of the same principles apply.
Maybe not hunting nets per say, maybe just a huge trawling net, or some sort of trawling-foam since we're in space. As high velocity objects begin to hit it, the foam will gain speed, but overtime, with presumably random speed-object collisions, the foam and its captured contents should have their speed reduced to 0 and fall. Doesn't need to be in foam or net form, but it does need to be a massive-entanglement-object, or MEO for short.
I'm probably under thinking this, but wouldn't the overall momentum of the debris be conserved so you'd have a bias in debris velocity in whatever direction the original objects were orbiting (presumably not random)?
There are small debris clouds, but also large uncontrolled spacecraft, like boosters. De-orbiting those could be a huge help, since a collision with a stray booster would create gobs of debris so those orbits may be completely avoided.
This could work, but would limit effectiveness to the orbits that MUST be very specific to work. For most satellites this doesn't matter. If 500 km is clogged, you design your mission to work at 505 km. I could see something like this working for geostationary orbits and sun-synchronous orbits as they require specific altitudes and inclinations, but not for much else.
Except orbits are neither that precise nor that static, without active control.
Look up the "Gabbard diagram" of any orbital collision. Some of the debris ends up in rather elliptical orbits, with an apogee considerably higher than the orbit of either object that went into the collision. That means it presents a risk to satellites even in higher orbits.
Also, orbits decay. The atmosphere doesn't just stop at a line; there's thinner and thinner wisps of gas out there, ever so slightly dragging on orbiting objects. So higher orbits slowly get lower, and lower orbits rapidly get lower still, until the orbit turns into an entry trajectory.
The properties of the exosphere are fickle and change rapidly, influenced by the solar wind and other forces. So while it's certain that orbiting objects experience drag, it's very uncertain how _much_ drag.
An object in an elliptical orbit spends some of its time with a very low perigee and thus a lot of atmospheric drag and thus its orbit changes rapidly in ways that're hard to predict, even if its apogee is high enough that it also crosses orbits of interesting things that're trying to avoid it. And the less predictable it is, the harder it is to avoid.
Well, if we're imagining dystopian science-fiction stories in this vein, let's say that the salvage company automates their cleanup with an AI approximately as sophisticated as YouTube. Now every satellite launch is subject to malicious "take down" requests from competitors along with the whimsies of the algorithm.
Only because space debris are a negative externality at this time. If there was an (international) way to fine companies based on the trash they left in orbit, this would all be very straightforward.
There's thankfully a very obvious repercussion to leaving stuff in orbit that anyone planning to put something in orbit can see in obvious ways, unlike the delayed and hard to account for impact on the climate any one company will have.
Even if someone solves the technical part (cheap recovery), there are multiple practical problems with salvaging.
1. Satellites don't have much to salvage at EoL, they are typically obsolete at this point, at least for their main purpose. Their components degrade as well - space is a fairly aggressive environment and they aren't designed to be reusable.
2. They often contain highly regulated components that have tight export restrictions.
3. They might contain state or trade secrets and recovering by a third party is highly undesirable.
At least right now any particular "orbit space" does not have a meaningful value, as equivalent orbit spaces are available for free; while they aren't unlimited theoretically, they are essentially "first come first served" and there is no possible market for those spaces because current international treaties essentially permit any country to allow a launch in any free orbit and no country is permitted to make any exclusive claims to any parts of space that they are not actively using right now.
So even if some country e.g. USA would pass some laws allowing to reserve some spot in a with an option to resell it, that would only mean that USA would prohibit their own launches to that orbit, but any other country (China, France, Russia, etc) could still authorize anyone to launch to that orbit and once the orbit is taken it would be illegal for the USA buyer to launch there, and there would be no right to any compensation from whoever took that spot, because according to current international law there can be no exclusive right to that spot.
Given enough debris at different orbital heights, maybe Woz company can collect it at one location and use it as a launch platform, using the debris as the reaction-mass, then they can use solar power as the energy source to launch to higher orbits, rather than ejecting rocketfuel for thrust. Does this seem feasible? Given certain rocket trajectories, the debris could be made to fall back to earth, solving 2 problems at once - escape velocity energy needs as well as excessive space debris.
*Using space debris as railgun payload, but the railgun (rocket ship) is what you want to accelerate.
The big difference is that it's very cheap to get something in the ocean, and quite expensive to get something up in orbit. For a mast on a boat, 99% of the cost is in the mast and 1% in getting it where it is; For a solar panel in orbit, the panel itself was cheap but the majority of cost was spent in pushing it to orbit.
Sorry my “so you are saying it was possible?” was supposed to just be a little joke to the guy talking about ships.
I think what you are describing might one day be possible, but it’s so far in the distant future that technology would have to move along way before we start to think of this outside of science fiction.
The level of processing and manufacture required to turn junk into a robot is huge, and would require a large facility on land. You would need to be able to melt and smelt metal, remove impurities, cast parts etc and doing all this in space with tiny robots rather than a floating mega-factory would require a level of technology that we don’t yet have.
Note that you can’t just reassemble parts because they won’t fit together unless they are all standardised, they could be damaged, and they likely suffer from metal fatigue and wear (eg to the boat point, this is why we make boats from fresh wood rather than reuse rotten wood from a shipwreck).
Even if you assume there are sufficient working parts in orbit to construct working satellites, doing that reconstruction in space would require gathering them together in space either by people (super expensive) or by a sufficiently flexible robot, in which case we're already sending up something, just send up the desired new satellite instead.
Alternatively we could deorbit components without them burning up and assemble new ones down here, but that would also be vastly more expensive than just making new ones down here to begin with.
I'm very skeptical of the technical challenges associated with this problem (business model and financing aside). The amount of delta-v required to perform maneuvers to repeatedly "dock" with different pieces of space junk, and then again to de-orbit is very high. You MIGHT be able to de-orbit on the order of magnitude of ~10 pieces of low-earth orbit debris per mission. Maybe. If you're really good. And low-earth orbit junk isn't the major issue since it will de-orbit naturally in a reasonable time-frame. Higher orbit junk is what really matters, and will require much more delta-v to reach, and then again to de-orbit after "docking".
Allow me to blindly speculate here: a space-junk company is going to take one of the two following paths:
1) Perform low-earth orbit missions to de-orbit a few pieces here and then there, use the good PR to drive funding (let's just assume they can make the finances work via getting governments to pay for it or something). It will technically work, but it will only deorbit pieces that would naturally decay anyways at a meaninglessly low-volume. But the PR will be good and regulatory capture will ensure their investors get paid. The real problem will remain.
2) Go after the really big pieces in higher orbits. These pieces tend to be well-tracked and aren't really a large problem, but all the same outcomes in option 1 will occur. Investors will get paid, and of course, the real problem won't be solved.
Maybe I'm being pessimistic, but I see space-junk removal companies largely relying on the general public's lack of knowledge on how orbits work to drive PR. Maybe Kerbal Space Program 2 will go viral enough to fix that problem? We can only hope
The most realistic solution for space junk deorbiting I've seen is the recently tested electromagnetic tether ("Terminator tape"). It is a passive solution that does not require an external spacecraft, and could be activated by a satellite operator when a satellite reaches the end of its lifespan. Perhaps, such system should be made mandatory, maybe even going as far as adding a dead man switch for its automatic activation in case the satellite becomes uncontrollable and stops responding to the commands from the Earth.
But even with this solution removing high orbit debris still remains a hard problem.
This would work great for defunct satellites, but does nothing to solve the bigger space-junk danger: random bits and pieces of things from stage separations and previous collisions that are difficult to track. Definitely a step in the right direction, but it won't solve the largest threat.
The problem with this kind of system is that it isn't retroactive; all space junk currently in space will remain in space even if the tether device is mandated. And it's unlikely it gets mandated and approved by all spacefaring governments anytime soon.
I dont think it matters in the timespan of our species probable use for this planet.
However. Don't let that stop you from donating to my just launching "venture NGO" to study the feasibility of protecting the earth's atmosphere by wrapping it in a big paper sack: which will sequester carbon, preserve our Precious Planetary Gasses, shade us from the Sun's evil ultraviolet rays and other harmful radiation, and vastly stimulate the economy. We expect to raise $2 billion to commence the first study sometime in 2084.
Unless you plan to live forever, it's not a problem for you or your great great great great great grandchildren either. GP was pointing out that neither the Moon not the Earth care about human life and will do just fine without us.
My understanding of the issue is that the biggest problems are a few well known defunct satellites in mid altitude orbit. We have no control over them so if two collide we are in big trouble. That almost happened last year. I think someone can make a big difference by targeting those first.
A couple of ideas that come with little knowledge, so take it with a big grain of salt:
1. "Electromagnetic Missile" with trajectory who's apogee is just below the targeted space junk. Turn on the electromagnet when just below the space junk to drag down its trajectory slightly, or even down to a de-orbit trajectory. Obviously, this only works with satellites built with magnetic materials. It may just be my outsider's perspective, but non-orbital missiles seem much easier and cheaper than rockets that go into orbital trajectories. Handling the return of the missile is tricky, perhaps it can also self-detonate fairly high in the atmosphere.
2. Ion engines or space sails driven tugs for use in getting to the space junk. My understanding is ion engines have a really favorable specific impulse. An optional chemical engine could be used to quickly de-orbit the tug upon reaching the satellite. Another idea to speed up de-orbit without requiring the tug the whole way would be a spring that would "push" the junk once it reached it, throwing it into an orbit that would more quickly drop it into the atmosphere. Newton could be used to our advantage to also push the tug into a new orbit to reach the next junk satellite sooner.
Obviously, arm-chair rocket scientist here, so feasibility of the above ideas can probably quickly be dis-proven.
Indeed that does seem incredibly difficult, my imagination goes to a cloud of poly-bots, perhaps powered by surface-based laser(s) and solar, such that they could be made to gradually approach the target orbit, attach to the object, and any that attach could help the others by accelerating the debris towards them.. then hopefully once enough were on, you'd have enough control on the object to de-orbit it? (Total space/engineering layperson here, just thought it might be a way around some of the tricky parts?)
Can you use the junk's energy to power the cleaner? Imagine this: the cleaner has a big spring on the back of it. The spring is slowly compressed using solar power. The orbiter grabs a piece of junk, and then launches it backwards. The cleaner now has gained some of the energy from the junk, and the junk has lost energy.
Going after bigger pieces in higher orbit might not bring much of an immediate benefit, but it can reduce the amount of damage if such an object is hit and shattered into many pieces (Kessler effect comes to mind).
So it might still be very worthwhile in the long term.
Low orbit stuff gets naturally de-orbited after a few years/decades by stray air molecules from the Earth's atmosphere, so there's little point to manually cleaning it. Debris in higher orbits can take centuries or millennia to naturally de-orbit, so manual cleaning there makes more sense.
With my very basic understanding of orbital mechanics, higher orbits require more dV simply because it's further from Earth.
The more interesting bit is that subtle orbital adjustments require much less dV in higher orbits than in lower ones.
I like to think of it like pushing a barrel uphill: it takes more effort if the slope is steep, but then once it's up there, it's a lot easier to get the barrel moving downhill.
Anyways, the "de-orbit" cost follows the same rule of higher being more costly in dV, the big difference with an ascension being that the atmosphere slowing you down is what you want (aerobraking is the word, I think?). So the difference in dV between a high orbit and a low orbit descent isn't proportionate to that of the ascent, if that makes any sense.
Maybe instead of de-orbiting debris they could collect it into a small number of well-known locations. Instead of 10k pieces of space junk to avoid in a particular orbit you could just have one or two. Might have less demanding delta-v requirements that way.
not likely that they will have one craft that is used to deorbit multiple items. more likely there will be one craft with 100 micro/cub satellites in orbit. once junk identified, mother craft ejects micro sat, micro sat performs one single burn to rendevu with junk over a very long period of time. passively connects to it somehow, like magnets or or something, then once connected, then does a single. deorbit burn to change the trajectory of the junk to deorbit significantly faster than normal. sacrifice itself with the deorbit
If you can ablate the leading surface (if the object is not spinning quickly, which honestly is unlikely) then the ejected plasma may push the perigee either into the atmosphere or at least to a higher-drag altitude.
I'm no expert, but is that really a consideration for modern launches? I'm not aware of any space agency that is currently limited in what they can do by orbital debris. Maybe it changes the launch windows, or they adjust an orbit by a few km. But are missions actually being canceled such that they would fund someone to make those missions possible again?
"The story of Planetes follows the crew of the DS-12 "Toy Box" of the Space Debris Section, a unit of Technora Corporation. Debris Section's purpose is to prevent the damage or destruction of satellites, space stations and spacecraft from collision with debris (so-called "space debris") in Earth's and the Moon's orbits. They use a number of methods to dispose of the debris (mainly by burning it via atmospheric reentry or through salvage), accomplished through the use of EVA suits."
From a strict physics perspective, I tend to think you are right, but from a messy human perspective I think orbital cleanup companies stand to do a lot of good even if they never retrieve more than a token satellite or two.
Being able to say "You just made a $200M mess," priced on the cost of cleanup, is a lot more powerful than just being able to say "You made a mess." A concrete price tag is a boon for regulation, for liability & enforcement, and even for space startups explaining to their investors why yes, they do have to include fuel budget for the viking funeral, and no, they can't just decide not to, because the alternative is a $200M cleanup fee.
We do regulate orbits. Up until now there have been no cleaner companies so we'll see how that plays in to regulation. "Who will pay for it?" is indeed an interesting question.
It is not too early because the mess produces more mess through collisions, meaning that the sooner you catch it the less expensive it is to fix. Waiting until the problem is directly painful is humanity's normal operating procedure, but it's also like waiting until your cancer is stage 4 before getting it looked at.
First, many satellites share an orbit - for example, the whole GEO is a single orbital path, and it has hundreds, something like 25% of all the world's satellites spread over that path; and any junk that intersects that orbit is a threat to all of them, not any one in particular.
Second, a random piece of space junk is likely to be in a weird orbit where no satellite would want to be, but that potentially crosses/intersects many orbits where we would like to put satellites or have already done so, so again, it threatens many satellites (or "orbital slots"), not any one in particular. An orbit that's "clean" for this rotation might intersect a piece of space junk in the next rotation or a month afterwards; that junk is not "in that orbit" but it's still a threat to that orbit and many others because its path is crossing these orbits.
You could assign responsibility to sources of particular pieces debris; but there simply aren't cleanly separable areas of space for orbits to which you could assign responsibility like we do for radio spectrum.
The big difference from EM is that if you turn of your transmitter the "junk" disappears while space junk can persist for a long time in any orbit that is not extremely close. It is also very unknown how much it will cost to clean up the junk and how spread out it will be (both because space-cleaning is new and that space accidents tend to spread out). It sounds great to have those requirements conceptually but it is also extremely hard to even start to think about what those requirements would be and how to enforce them globally.
While I don't claim that Wozniak has any business running a space junk cleanup company - I am confused about your requirement that all founders must be serially successful ones for any of their ventures to matter.
This is the complete opposite of the truth on almost every front. Elon is really good at bluster and branding. The execution is never there at launch of one of his ventures and usually only halfway there years later, this applies to X.com, SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX, all of which were and in some cases still are failures even until this day. But surviving for long enough and with the right folks around you means that you can turn things around.
The success of SpaceX has nothing to do with Musk and a lot to do with this woman: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwynne_Shotwell. That even you, who ostensibly cares quite a bit about SpaceX, don’t know this is a testament to how little execution matters.
If every company that a CEO touches is a tirefire until they are removed from day-to-day operations, is that good execution on their part? Just because they eventually hire the right people and those people are successful? (Ignoring of course that hiring is not a 1 person job.)
Even when they are a liability to the company through their actions, lying to shareholders and customers? I'm not so sure. If Elon had ever lead a company to success of his own volition then I could say different. But he mostly gets credit for other people's work -- that's how his inclusion into the list of founders of Paypal came about in the first place, how he came to be head of Tesla, and also now how folks mistakenly give him credit for the success of SpaceX.
> If every company that a CEO touches is a tirefire until they are removed from day-to-day operations, is that good execution on their part?
Maybe? I think it'd be silly to claim that Tesla and SpaceX are so successful that they were able to become world class companies even under hostile leadership. They are successful in part because of their leadership, such as Gwynne as you mentioned (god bless her).
> Even when they are a liability to the company through their actions, lying to shareholders and customers?
One might argue this is even the primary purpose of a CEO, to lie and lie and keep the illusion going until the engineers have enough time to actually deliver. Tim Cook had a similar bout with Apple Maps, AirPower, and the infamous car project, but he doesn't seem to be cast in the same light as Elon with FSD.
> If Elon had ever lead a company to success of his own volition
If I may, I don't think anyone has ever lead a company to success of their own volition, so this is a false premise. You're saying that tons of other people helped make these companies succeed, but this is true for every company, even the ones that eventually fail.
Elon is a complicated character and he's certainly not a saint, but he is at the very least involved in these companies, and while they are doing well he deserves at least some credit for selling a vision that excites investors and customers and keeps the lights on. As I learn more about the business world, I'm beginning to see that a lot of tech CEOs have a similar social function to rockstars: they get crowds to feel ecstasy and hope and headbang to the music while skilled operators in the background sell merch, records, and deals.
I still admire the man for his accomplishments and the role he played in shaping the modern world of computing. But I also recognize that his current role is to provide brand recognition for longshot companies.
I do. I respect the guy, but this seems like a "me too" (the traditional meaning, as in someone trying to assert "Hey, I'm a player, too"). It's a worthy cause, but I think his major contribution may be his celebrity cache.
Musk has a name re: Space based on accomplishments, hands down. Branson's move extends the Virgin enterprises, and Bezos has a similar business plan and track record as Branson. But now comes Woz, older and much later to the game, and with no background of experience.
His name, face, and personality will bring in investors, though, I'm sure.
As a note, the manga is a lot less "hard" but no less enjoyable than the anime. For the anime they had a bunch of space folks consult to fix things up so if the space faring details bother you watch that.
Do you have a source for that? The manga I remember being quite accurate (though it's been a decade at least since I last read it). The anime diverges drastically story wise from the manga (the main characters are even different).
I always had this question, though maybe there's a simple answer why nobody is doing this.
Why it's not mandatory to have some smallish engine attached, which at the end of satellite's life would lower the orbit enough until atmosphere picks it up and it will slow down significantly on it's own and burn up?
Is it because most satellites will not fully burn and actually hit the ground, i.e. it's liability?
Is it because of too great of a risk of crossing and colliding with a satellite in another orbit, i.e. liability again?
Is it because "attaching smallish engine" which will fire at satellite's end life is actually really hard thing to do?
The engine is not the problem. It's the fuel. Large orbit changes take a lot. Lowering orbit is not easier than raising orbit, it takes the same delta-v.
IMO what should happen is we should ban putting satellites in high orbits. Satellites in low orbit decay naturally within a few years due to atmospheric drag. Satellites in high orbit will stay there essentially forever. More importantly, any collision in high orbit creates a permanent debris cloud which will spread over time and pollute orbit forever, being essentially impossible to clean up even with sci-fi technology. A collision in low orbit creates a similar debris cloud but it will be naturally cleaned up in a few years or less.
Putting satellites in high orbits made sense back when it was incredibly expensive to launch each satellite, because satellites last longer in high orbit and you don't need as many to cover an area. Also, stationary satellite dishes only work with geostationary satellites, and geostationary orbit is a very high orbit. But today we can use phased arrays to communicate with moving satellites without physically moving a dish, and SpaceX is about to drop launch prices through the floor with Starship, making it feasible to launch enough satellites to cover the Earth even in low orbit and replace them frequently. So to me, the space debris pollution risk of high orbit satellites can no longer be justified.
Orbit is unintuitive. Objects in orbit are not just floating up there. They are constantly falling under the influence of gravity, just as objects here on Earth. The reason they don't hit the Earth when they fall is that they are traveling sideways at 25,000+ km/h. This is so fast that they miss hitting the Earth, and simply fall forever.
When a rocket launches to orbit, it only goes up a little bit, just to get out of the atmosphere, and then spends most of its time/fuel on going sideways to reach orbital velocity. If you watch a rocket launch you can see that the rocket starts to tip over and go sideways soon after leaving the pad. This is also why launching from a plane doesn't help you very much, because going up is the easy part of getting to orbit. A plane can't help you with the hard part of getting to 25,000 km/h sideways.
For an object in orbit to stop missing the Earth as it falls, it must slow down that sideways velocity, and gravity doesn't help with that.
Gravity is already helping all it wants to. Gravity is constantly redirecting the velocity in the circular orbit. A velocity change will push it into a new orbit, that will be slightly offset from the old one. You need so much velocity change to offset the orbit so much, and then you are still orbiting - still in something of a a steady state trajectory, just a slightly different one. It’s symmetric in fact
Think of raising an orbit like moving an item from one side of your desk to the other.
You have to put energy into doing it, but the end result is just as much in balance with gravity as the starting point. So if you want it back where it was, you need to spent the same amount of energy to move it in exactly the same way in the opposite direction.
Well there are other reasons for debris besides just satellites going out of commission. For example in 2007 China deliberately blew up the Fenyun-1C satellite for some kind of research purpose accounting for probably thousands of current pieces of debris up there.
The satellites we put in orbit will naturally have orbits which will decay in a matter of days to hundreds of millions of years. End of life is indeed a consideration for launch approval and many satellites do accelerate their decay with onboard thrust.
Some satellites can’t, would require too much thrust to get back to earth. Some push in to higher orbits to get out of the way for replacement satellites.
Some satellites break in orbit and can’t be controlled.
Yes but the FCC is going the wrong direction with that. Firstly it treats constellations differently than individual satellites which makes no sense from a statistical and mathematical perspective and it would also completely kill off the smallest of satellites that students learn with that are primarily launched by universities.
> For purposes of calculating the probability of successful post-mission disposal, we define
successful post-mission disposal for spacecraft in LEO as re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years or less following completion of the spacecraft mission.
Requiring de-orbiting at EOL would destroy their business no? Also EOL de-orbiting works great for low-altitude orbits, but becomes exponentially more difficult with higher orbits. It is pretty much impossible with the very valuable geostationary orbital slots.
I am by no means a rocket scientist, but wouldn't a de-orbiting requirement be as simple as including a few small chemical thrusters with a dedicated fuel source reserved for de-orbiting?
I have no idea how much force it takes to actually move a given amount of mass out of orbit, and I assume it is different depending on the height of that orbit. So maybe doing this would simply add too much weight in the form of fuel storage to be feasible. In my head though, orbits are fragile and it shouldn't take a lot to nudge something into a death spiral towards the atmosphere.
This works great for a small-subset of the space-debris problem: satellites in low-earth orbit that have reached their end-of-life. For example, Starlink satellites maintain a small reserve propellant for their maneuvering thrusters to be executed at EOL. This activity will likely be mandated by regulatory bodies in the coming years (and definitely should be). However performing this task becomes much more difficult to do as orbits get higher. The higher the orbit, the more fuel is required to perform a de-orbit, and the more fuel is required to lift THAT fuel into the orbit in the first place. Propellant requirements scale exponentially with increased mass. Beyond a certain orbital altitude, it becomes prohibitively expensive.
In addition, the bulk of the space-junk problem is not defunct satellites, but fragments from previous collisions, and stage-separations (screws, scraps, paint-chips, etc). Satellites (even defunct ones) are easily trackable, and have known trajectories. Random 10 cm pieces of metal are not.
While mandating EOL maneuvers for low-earth satellites is definitely a solution to part of the problem, it is not the full solution.
It takes a ton (possibly literally) of propellant to change your orbit from a circle in GEO to an ellipse that intercepts the atmosphere. If you don't have enough, you've not put it in a deorbiting spiral, simply an oval that will stay up for about as long as the original satellite's circular orbit.
Rocket scientists work in terms of 'delta V', meaning an amount of energy gives you a particular change in velocity. GEO to LEO takes on the order of 6 km/s (oversimplifying because orbital mechanics are complicated), meaning you need a rocket engine that's capable of accelerating your satellite from 0 to 13,400 miles per hour.
Ah, that makes sense: if sovereignty is a driving requirement you can't just piggyback on the big LEO swarm deployments, but a single geostationary satellite covers exactly the territory that you care about. Now I understand. Thanks.
The most efficient way to de-orbit the satellite is to design it with de-orbit capability built in. Satellites already have maneuvering thrusters with propellant and/or "kicker" stages to maneuver them in their destination orbit. De-orbiting capability is just some extra delta-v onboard, and a de-orbit maneuver coded into the flight computer.
"Space-tug" like services from a third-party would be vastly more expensive. The only use case would to de-orbit a satellite that for some reason failed to de-orbit itself.
> De-orbiting capability is just some extra delta-v onboard, and a de-orbit maneuver coded into the flight computer.
It's not "just" some delta-v, it's the same amount of delta-v as the original perigee kick. Most satellites get their perigee kick from a booster stage from their launch vehicle that separates from the satellite and de-orbits.
Every gram of mass of fuel and engine on a satellite is a gram less of payload.
Yes, and it is still vastly more efficient to bring that delta-v with you than to use an entire other vehicle to come up to you provided by a third-party to de-orbit for you. Which is the case I was comparing and contrasting with in response to the parent comment. Evidently this is the case knowing that de-orbiting capabilities are built-in to many low-earth orbit satellites, although it (and any de-orbiting method) is prohibitively expensive for higher orbits
If they can make this tech viable, DOD will buy it as an ASAT weapons capability with essentially a blank check. Debris removal is a fantasy veneer slapped on to space weapons development for investors.
the point of SpaceX putting things into LEO (which we should really call SLEO or something, because it's super-low) is that the orbits are self-clearing on a reasonable timescale, months or single-digit years.
GEO is likewise not a problem because things out there are really far apart and they generally don't cross each other's orbits.
MEO (where GNSS services live) is the real danger. Thankfully there aren't a ton of objects there, but deorbiting the dead ones should be a very high priority on anyone's list.
How much money would SpaceX lose per day in that event? I imagine the thread of a cascading set of collisions becomes more likely after the first one, also. I think SpaceX would be very interested in clearing debris as soon as possible in the event of a collision. Months or single-digit years likely would cost SpaceX many billions.
> would be pretty interested in cleaning up space junk if two of their LEO satellites collide.
SpaceX satellites are passively de-conflicted. Which means that the orbits are planned such that the satellites never can be at the same place at the same point in time. But yes SpaceX does care a lot about debris in their orbital shell.
What is their business model? This is far from first space debris cleanup company, but regardless of their technical capabilities, all of them are useless until the regulations introduce a requirement for the launch providers and satellite owners to clean their mess.
You'll be sued for domino effect that crashed everything?
But seriously, I have no idea how cleaning operations will look like. There are tens of thousands small piecies flying around at high speed. Every time I think about it my brain gives back cartoon scenes only as solution to cleanups.
I wish sometimes I were young enough and less financially constrained enough to allow myself to work for such a company. The thrill of working on something like this with people like this must be immense.
> “3D printing with titanium is incredibly valuable in industries like aerospace because of the material’s ability to support complex and lightweight designs,” said Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Privateer Space, a new satellite company focused on monitoring and cleaning up objects in space.*
So many comments here focusing on de-orbiting. Of course for any new satellite, end-of-life de-orbiting should be a part of the initial design, engineering, & build.
However, for existing dead satellites & debris that is above atmospheric decay in reasonable times, I wonder if it would actually be more effective/efficient (in terms of cost, delta-V, scheduling, etc.) to 'herd' the junk into a more out-of-the-way location for future use. It seems once on-orbit manufacturing starts, it'd be useful to have a lot o high-quality material up out of the gravity well, and all of that stuff has already had huge investment to get it to orbit in the first place.
> However, for existing dead satellites & debris that is above atmospheric decay in reasonable times, I wonder if it would actually be more effective/efficient (in terms of cost, delta-V, scheduling, etc.) to 'herd' the junk into a more out-of-the-way location for future use. It seems once on-orbit manufacturing starts, it'd be useful to have a lot o high-quality material up out of the gravity well, and all of that stuff has already had huge investment to get it to orbit in the first place.
Basically none of that is practical. Moving anything in space requires fuel. Changing a satellite's orbit from A to B requires the same amount of fuel as going from B to A. Going from A to B and then back to A takes twice the fuel. If you pick up more mass at B, you actually need more fuel to get back to A. You also need fuel to rendezvous with your fuel depot where you can get all the fuel for these trips.
Every rendezvous has a probability of failure. The more rendezvous you perform the more likely it is something bad will happen. Satellites aren't usually super sturdy structures because they're optimizing for mass. So some satellite herder needs to spend a lot of extra fuel matching the target's spin rate and velocity so capturing it doesn't cause it to break apart.
Then there's the orbital manufacturing. Even if you managed to capture hundreds of satellites and herd them into some holding orbit, you've got a bunch of heterogeneous parts clumped together. You'd need to disassemble a bunch of devices that weren't meant to be disassembled. Even if you get them disassembled they're a bunch of finished packaged parts. They're not going to be reusable so they'd need to be melted down. Now you need smelters and centrifuges and every other chain in recycling materials to base feedstocks.
That's all an absurd level of complexity and danger compared to just de-orbiting a satellite. The costs don't even compare. Your proposal would be phenomenally expensive if it was practical. Satellite clean up is highly impractical and expensive but still orders of magnitude more practical and cheaper than the things you're talking about.
There's no way this works economically. You either need governments to pay for it or you spend your own money in a philanthropic way. Last I checked Woz doesn't have any money left as he gave it all away, so unless he found other people's money to bankroll it, they're going to depend exclusively on governments paying for trash removal. And despite the media's hoopla, orbital debris are an issue, but they're not a huge issue.
A few weeks ago, on the launch of the amazing company Turion Space, I wrote this comment, which I believe still applies here,
Congratulations on the launch! I am excited for what you're building. I also love your website. :)
This comment isn't meant to be negative. What you're doing is exciting and amazing. Nothing anyone says should detract from that. However, I have broader questions and (market) skepticism after being around people starting such companies.
Most of the questions here are deal with the technical. But I think you folks will solve that and then some. For those who aren't as familiar with the field, autonomous rendezvous, docking, and servicing has been possible for 15+ years. DARPA's Orbital Express mission autonomously rendezvoused, docked, and replaced a target vehicle's flight computer in 2007, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_Express .
My questions mostly revolve around the business side, who is going to pay for it and why?
Here is my current understanding of the issue:
Orbital debris removal is a tragedy of the commons problem which makes who pays for it and why muddled in the best of circumstances. The market situation right now is not the best of circumstances. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, there is no single stakeholder who is impacted enough to unilaterally take action. It isn't a pain point - yet. Most of the valuable orbits, like the sunsynchronous orbits do not have enough debris to degrade service. The most valuable orbit - GEO - is managed actively to avoid service degradation through debris.
The debris that does exist is mostly from the Chinese Anti-Satellite weapons test + the Cosmos + Iridium conjunction event. This debris is concentrated around the 750km to 850km, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Distribution-of-cataloge... and these orbits aren't valuable enough for this to be a concern, as of now.
There is some concern around the mega-constellations, but SpaceX's constellation will be at around the 550km mark. If the worst does happen, and we have a cascade, then all the debris will be deorbit itself in less than a decade. And it - most likely - won't significantly impact any other services except in a ±20km altitude of the cascade. Kuiper will be at 630km, so that is likely to take longer (the orbital lifetime for an object w.r.t. altitude is an exponential one), but it is manageable.
OneWeb's constellation is more worrying at 1,2000km, but AFAICT, they won't send up enough assets for it to be a significant concern. Space is big after all.
Furthermore, no country has - so far - ever, without express permission, rendezvoused, docked, and altered the orbit of an object by another country. Someone involved with UNOOSA put it to me this way, you can look all you want, but you can't touch. You can come close to another country's satellite, you two can peak at each other, take photos of one another, try and measure the other's payload etc. But you can't do a hard (or soft) capture of one another, because that is a declaration of war. IANAL, but short of getting a contract with the Chinese Govt. you can't actually address the largest source of space debris - it would be an act of war. For debris where the ownership is muddled or the organization is no longer extant, the "how much are people willing to pay for this" factor doesn't seem to eclipse the "will this cause diplomatic incident/spark a war" factor. It doesn't seem like a profitable beehive to poke.
As far as I can see, there isn't a single stakeholder with an orbital debris hair on fire problem right now. All of my friends who have started a company around debris have ended up pivoting into the satellite servicing market, much in the same way as you indicate. However, even there there are concerns that make the problem domain difficult for a successful business to operate in.
The hard capture business is the national security business. You can see that with Momentus. I am unaware of any other industry where such a thing happens, but the DoD explicitly had the company remove its Russian CEO and had him divest all of his assets before allowing the company to proceed with operations,
> In-space transportation company Momentus says its Russian co-founders are now “completely divested” from the company as it reaches a national security agreement with federal agencies.
> In March, Momentus announced that Kokorich and Brainyspace LLC, the company owned by Khasis and his wife, had put their shares into a voting trust and would divest them within three years. The move, the company said, was in response to correspondence from the Defense Department in January “stating Momentus posed a risk to national security as a result of the foreign ownership and control of Momentus by Mikhail Kokorich and Lev Khasis and their associated entities.”
More privately, I have noticed that all of the startups that have made a viable autonomous rendezvous, docking, and servicing system seem to go dark. I'm guessing this usually coincides with substantial DoD interest and money. As they seem to be the largest (and perhaps only) customer right now.
I would be surprised if Turion Space, as an American company, would be allowed to - legally or otherwise - to service Chinese assets. Based on personal experience, I just don't see that happening short of something extraordinary. Servicing European assets might also fall under some fairly onerous restrictions.
Maybe companies launching smallsats and cubesats might hire you for extending the service lifetime of their missions, but if launch costs truly decrease, then it might be cheaper for them to send up a new mission with better tech than have you service it.
Is my understanding of the market correct? If so, this brings me back to my original question, who is this for? And why will they buy it?
I believe that you can succeed. But I don't know if the market exists yet for you to succeed.
Space Debris feels like the sitcom startup idea of the space age. It's a problem everyone outside of the space thinks exists, but most people in the space know that it doesn't yet exist. At least not in the way that it can be solved by a private entity - so far.
I might be wrong and I would be extremely happy if it turns out that I am indeed wrong.
>The hard capture business is the national security business.
This one is what makes it particularly messy. Everything in space is somehow related to defense and natsec, even if it doesn't seem so to an outsider. Even with hypothetical agreements in place, touching defunct space assets is just a huge can of worms, even with a laser beam. And anything that can capture a satellite is an outright military tech.
Same goes for on-orbit refueling and servicing, although these are a bit easier since they typically deal with functioning satellites.
Wozniak finding an excuse to have a private space company is somehow the most...pathetic of all the rich guys compensating with space companies. A cigar may sometimes just be a cigar, but a rocket is never just a rocket with these people.
Finding an excuse? He doesn't need an excuse. He's got the money/ability to raise the funds to do it.
He's choosing to do it for a reason that's going to be generally beneficial, if it works, at least. That's pathetic?
I'm just generally baffled by people criticizing these billionaires - the ones who are putting their money into making America a clear leader in what is going to be an increasingly strategic industry, while creating thousands upon thousands of high-quality, high-paying jobs. You know there's a bunch of billionaires who just spend they money on art that they then store in vaults, while they vacation on yachts, right? Why not criticize them instead of the guy spending his money trying to clean up space, a shared resource for our species?
profitable? well, at least they have a theoretical path, unlike uber: further resource exploitation cuz we're really running out here, and we can't just let our art gather dust in vaults! Anyway, I haven't worked out the numbers yet, but I am curious to see how capitalism overcomes the laws of thermodynamics here. like, have you ever tried to get a package from chicago to vancouver? so yeah all we need a a giant fucking rocket, and Amazon's amazing supply-chain logistics and..dang, who knows, it might work. And Bezos' weak chin is incidental.
I really thought this was going to be some kind of a joke, that woz was going to clean the space from tourists/ tourists trash. But kudos anyway to woz (again) for thinking on improving rather than just profiting
Meanwhile, in possibly related news from Cupertino, a local station reports that a BFI garbage truck inexplicably fell from orbit and has struck Apple headquarters, demolishing the area out to a radius of a square mile.
Someone with only a distant view of the space industry said to me, 'I don't understand they excitement over the new private launch companies (Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, etc.). They are doing things that were accomplished 50 years ago; they are just money-making ventures, not exploration.' I think it's a good point to think about (try to restrain yourself, as I do, from picking at their point-of-view).
They will be happy to hear about Woz's project; Woz is doing something useful with the opportunity for commercial space.
I mean, definitely true on the level of making money (like every business), but SpaceX is doing things that haven’t been done before. (Landing and reusing rockets.) Related to that, making space more accessible is important for anything else space-related to happen. As an example, say Woz needs to send up robots to perform cleanup ops: that that of thing is probably only viable with accessible space launches. I’m not saying that robots will be used, just that sending X product or venture into space requires space launches to be accessible to more companies. And that’s possible because of these private launch companies innovating in the space.
The issue with space debris is that on our current trajectory, at some point in the future, there will be so much debris traveling so fast that future space exploration will be impossible because we'll never get anything off the planet. Not to mention we won't be able to have satellites. Possibly a nerd grift but the issue is important.
Its called the Kessler syndrome. Small fast moving debris crashing into larger fast moving debris destroying it creating even more smaller fast moving debris that keeps crashing into more debris etc etc etc.
> The issue with space debris is that on our current trajectory, at some point in the future, there will be so much debris traveling so fast that future space exploration will be impossible
The issue is keeping things in orbit not space exploration. Realistically going through is never going to be a problem. The worst that might happen is that you need some monitoring and manoeuverability on-board of your spacecraft but it's not insurmountable. Even near Earth, space is that big.
Staying there with a lot of debris flying around really fast that could become impossible.
_Your_ launch will be very unlikely to be hit by debris, but _one of_ the 86400 manned spaceflights per day will be hit. And now you've lost not only the 200 souls onboard but also a portion of the city that the suborbital spacecraft was on a trajectory towards as the punctured hull falls short of the landing pad.
If we were able to economically produce and sustain 86400 manned spaceflights per day cleaning space junk wouldn't be an issue.
The problem is the viability of technology we actually rely on nowadays: global positioning, weather prediction, surveillance and satellite communication. Space exploration is pretty low on the list of reasons people should worry about debris in orbit.
> There is enough garbage on the surface of the earth to worry about.
Every single time there is anything happening with space flight, there is at least one comment saying "We should literally solve every single problem here on Earth first before even thinking about anything related to space". This seems like a pretty shallow code for space flight should not happen, ever.
I've been wondering about the people who make these comments for a while, and your seems to follow a similar blueprint. I have some questions, maybe you can answer them.
What motivates this? Are you worried about Earth getting deprioritized? Is the perception that we must decide between tackling social problems/climate change and gratuitous space adventures? Are these comments a way of saying that humans should never venture beyond Earth or that we're just not ready yet? Even if you believe actual humans should never go to space, do you still believe we should have infrastructure there to support Earth?
I didn't mean to make it code - space flight is a complete waste of money. As far as I'm concerned we've already proved our point with regard to space travel, and can now afford to spend those bajillions of dollars on planet earth instead of satisfying the curiosity of nerds.
But this specific endeavor is about protecting our orbital infrastructure, it has nothing to do with curiosity. We depend on satellites. Yes, the byproduct will be that orbital cleanup also protects science equipment and access to space in general, but that's not the main purpose.
What do you think falls under "the curiosity of nerds"? Isn't that all of science? Or just cosmology? Or space-based platforms?
I don't think there's anything wrong with curious nerds... you make a good point that a large portion of scientists are just that. But the authentic ones are willing to do it for free. It's the ones who are always whining about how they need constant boatloads of public funding (which is supposed to be spent on public services), while pretending to have a pure and noble interest in humanity, who are insufferable.
> But the authentic ones are willing to do it for free.
The only scientists who can afford to work for free would have to be independently wealthy, that's not very common. I don't think there is anything wrong with charging money for work, even if you do enjoy that work. Like any kind of work, research science has its share of 9-to-5ers who don't really care, but those people have their uses, too.
> It's the ones who are always whining about how they need constant boatloads of public funding (which is supposed to be spent on public services)
The core problem is really that often public money spent on science leads to results that are privately monetized and closed off from the public who funded it. That's why I believe SciHub is such an important institution, because it makes research results accessible to the public who funded them in the first place. However, funding for space-based data gathering (such as telescopes) has generally led to publicly-available data - the same cannot be said for, say, biomedical research.
I would argue that research is a public service, as long as it doesn't get immediately spun off into patent-encumbered "university-adjacent" enterprise (which I would argue is nothing less than legalized corruption). Of course the issue becomes: how do you prioritize science funding and how do you balance it against other public services?
The space stuff moves a lot of terrestrial stuff off-planet. Telecommunications has physical impact, much of it still wired and strung/buried across very long distances, or otherwise occupying space for lots of grounded towers. Sending that garbage (rhetorical or literal future) up solves your “worry about” for that industry. Yeah it matters.
> one piece getting a good hit on a satellite to create thousands more.
... and then what happens? Most of those pieces retain their location and momentum. "Blowing up a satellite" converts it into a cloud of smaller particles in the same orbit, possibly with some random spray, but this is not quite like billiard balls without friction.
Initially the particles are in roughly similar orbits to the two bodies that initially collided, but not precisely the same. Over time (exactly like billard balls without friction), those minor divergences mean they cover very wide areas.
Look up the "Gabbard diagram", which is a great way of depicting the outcome of a collision. There's a spray of different orbits, with some properties that resemble the original objects, but diverging significantly from them.
Edit: Here's an AMAZING 3d animated Gabbard diagram, that shows not only the altitude and period, but also the right ascension of each object. You can see the debris from the Fengyun booster sweeping around the whole planet, crossing the orbits of other objects: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePuvJDVNJd0
Even if they did stay in the same orbit, a thousand objects in the same orbit presents a thousand times more collision risk than one object in orbit. But because the collision changes the momentum of all the objects involved, it's much worse than that -- the results end up all over, and some of them are too small to track but still large enough to do damage. Those are the ones you really have to worrry about.