TOKYO — Soon after former President Barack Obama announced plans to put Americans on Mars by the 2030s last fall, SpaceX asked permission to launch 4,425 satellites, putting space back on the agenda. With this latest growth, the $335.3 billion space industry will face increased risks from debris orbiting at speeds of up to 42,000 mph. Aiming to maintain order and connectivity, Japan's Astroscale switched from its grand plans for interstellar garbage collection to developing technology for sending "dead" satellites to fiery graves.
The start-up brought in some $7.7 million Series A funding before it secured almost $30 million in Series B investment in March 2016. While yet to launch, the venture has already connected a major Japanese company to the space industry and also holds a contract to put a sports drink on the moon. But there is much more to done; the first mission is to monitor untrackable specks of junk.
Dangers posed by hypervelocity debris, including "dead" satellites, are very real.
In 2009 two satellites collided, completely destroying both craft. The crash involved a decommissioned Russian military satellite and a fully operational U.S. commercial communications satellite.
The accident generated 2,000 items trackable from Earth and tens of thousands smaller pieces unable to be traced. Such accidents have the potential to cause chain reactions of collisions, each which could generate more debris and cause more problems.
Naoko Yamazaki, a former Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut, quickly discovered the dangers of high-speed junk during her space shuttle mission.
"During my mission, we got at least three debris hits on the space shuttle windows," said Yamazaki, recalling her 2010 International Space Station assignment. While not shattered, the crew photographed the damage so experts on Earth could check if reentry was safe.