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'Where Is the Customer?'

Commercial Demand for Orbital Debris Removal Is Uncertain for Now

Though space agencies are starting to invest in orbital debris removal, most experts believe a commercial marketplace for it is years away. "It's really interesting technology, but where is the customer?" said BryceTech analyst Nick Boensch. Companies and startups in the debris removal space anticipate a sizable commercial demand emerging; however, for now it's a government-driven market only.

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Indeed, for at least the next several years government agencies will be the sole buyers of debris removal services, said Kevin Stadnyk, CEO of Obruta Space Solutions. Obruta provides satellite hardware and software for rendezvous, proximity operations and docking. Commercial demand for debris removal will emerge when constellation operators see the benefits of life extension and logistics missions in space, Stadnyk said. These include space tugs acting as satellites' engine, letting satellite operators get longer performance lives from their assets, he said.

Numerous nations are investing in orbital debris R&D and demonstrations. Last month, Astroscale launched a commercial debris inspection demonstration satellite as part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's commercial removal of debris demonstration program. ClearSpace plans to launch its ClearSpace-1 debris removal mission in 2026, with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA is also funding orbital debris removal R&D.

Astroscale -- partnering with OneWeb and ESA -- will launch its ELSA-M servicer next year as the start of its preliminary debris removal service offering, said Jason Forshaw, product development head, at Satellite 2024 in March. He said as the debris removal market matures, other companies will develop similar services. Moreover, space agencies funding missions is "the start of something other countries will copy," he added.

Still, it's unlikely that governments in the near future will go beyond technology investment and actually procure debris removal as a service, Ray Sedwick, University of Maryland space power and propulsion lab director, wrote in an email. "There has been some investment in the technology, but funding a program to actually DO it is a different matter, at least with regard to wholesale remediation programs."

Sedwick said a commercial market could exist around companies buying deorbiting services for their own assets at the end of life. Given the FCC's five-year deorbiting requirement for low earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched after Sept. 29 this year, buying deorbit services could mean lower satellite design and fabrication costs because satellites don't need to deorbit themselves. Deorbiting services also could allow operators to run satellites longer, rather than taking them offline while still functioning, he said. While SpaceX's Starlink takes care of its deorbiting and operates at a low enough altitude that the Starlinks will deorbit within five years, smaller constellations operating at higher altitudes might see the tradeoff as more appealing, Sedwick said.

There are numerous ideas about tackling orbital debris, but nothing is yet feasible, said John Crassidis, University at Buffalo mechanical and aerospace engineering professor. A big hurdle is that moving around in orbit -- such as navigating near a large piece of debris -- is fuel intensive, he said. "We need to buy time" by slowing debris growth, as technology advances to where debris removal becomes viable, he said. A "debris tax" could help fund R&D, though space operators would oppose it, he said.

There's no real customer for removal of small orbital debris, nor will there be one absent significant government intervention, said BryceTech's Boensch. Such removal also carries sizable legal issues concerning debris ownership, he said. Large debris, such as recently inactive satellites, is much more the focus of government-funded R&D and demonstration missions, he said. Governments will be the key near-term player in that market, he said.

Many constellations are being designed or equipped with docking mechanisms or other equipment that would facilitate their removal. Constellation operators don't want a failed satellite becoming a risk to their other operational satellites in that orbit, Boensch said. But commercial opportunities for providing such active debris removal to private constellations might be "few and far between," even with the huge numbers of satellites being placed into low earth orbit, he said. Often constellations initially are put into orbit at a low altitude and then gain altitude to their operating orbit, and most failures occur before satellites reach their final orbital altitude, he said. Boensch said mega constellations such as SpaceX and OneWeb have also proven more resilient than expected, with particularly low failure rates. That points to there not being a robust market that can support multiple operators in active debris removal, he said. Companies focused on debris removal have pivoted somewhat to a broader array of in-orbit services, such as life-extension missions, he said.

Business Opportunity

Starfish Space's Otter vehicle under development is aimed at applications such as geostationary orbit life extension to an array of "constellation management" services in LEO, including end-of-life disposal, said Director-Strategic Relationships Michael Madrid. He said Starfish anticipates commercial demand from constellation operators wanting a supplemental disposal strategy if their primary means of disposing a satellite fails. For those constellation operators, hiring an end-of-life service provider mitigates the risk posed by a dead satellite. In addition, it means less fuel spent as other satellites maneuver to avoid that dead satellite, Madrid said.

The company's Otter Pup prototype was launched in June and is in testing, Madrid said. Another Pup will launch later this year, with the first Otters expected in space in 2026 for either government or commercial missions, he said. He said beyond end-of-life disposal in LEO, Starfish also sees business opportunities in altitude-boosting missions in LEO. Eventually, there could be a market for tackling older, legacy space debris, though old second-stage rocket bodies carry particular challenges, as they are often tumbling at high rotation rates and there are legal and liability red flags around ownership of that older debris, Madrid said. There also is the business case question of who would pay for removal of decades-old debris.

While the U.S. government, and particularly Space Force, represent a good initial, anchor customer, several years from now commercial companies "will greatly outstrip and outpace" government spending, said Troy Morris, CEO of orbital debris startup Kall Morris. He said Kall Morris anticipates active debris removal will represent the vast majority of its revenue the next two to three years, but then other services, such as retrieval and relocation of space assets, will start growing rapidly. He said Kall Morris expects demand for removing recently defunct satellites and going after legacy debris that the U.S. government put in space for U.S. government clients.

BryceTech's Boensch said the cost of a debris removal mission, if sufficiently low, could interest governments enough to fund ongoing debris removal activities. But for now, government demand isn't enough to support multiple players, and perhaps not even one, he said. Regulatory debris removal mandates "would be a tough sell" that could have especially outsized impacts on startups, he said. The FCC's five-year deorbit from LEO rule "could be a tailwind" for commercial orbital debris removal operators, helping constellation operators focus on the importance of their disposal strategies, Starfish's Madrid said. However, he said, "We are not looking for regulation to tell them to do business with us."