September 22, 2021

Astroscale complete first test of satellite capture technology

COLORADO SPRINGS — Astroscale has completed the first major test of technology to capture and remove objects in orbit by releasing and then recapturing a small satellite.

The company announced Aug. 25 it performed a test earlier that day of its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) spacecraft where the main “servicer” spacecraft released a small client spacecraft, then recaptured it using a magnetic mechanism. The test was the first time the client had separated from the servicer since the launch of ELSA-d in March.

“It was a first step, but for us, it was big,” said Chris Blackerby, chief operating officer of Astroscale, in an interview during the 36th Space Symposium here.

The test was brief, he said, with the client moving only centimeters away before the servicer fired its thrusters and reconnected with the client. The entire test lasted dozens of seconds.

The test, though, was long enough to validate key technologies needed for later tests. “We were able to test out the cameras, the visualization, the software and, most importantly, the capture mechanism,” Blackerby said.

“This has been a fantastic first step in validating all the key technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations and capture in space,” Nobu Okada, founder and chief executive of Astroscale, said in a statement. “We are proud to have proven our magnetic capture capabilities and excited to drive on-orbit servicing forward with ELSA-d.”

The success of this test will allow the company to move on to later, more ambitious tests. They will include the servicer performing inspections of the client spacecraft as well as capturing the client while it is tumbling. The test program will conclude with the servicer and client deorbiting. Blackerby said those tests will be carried out over the next several months.

ELSA-d is one of several initiatives by Astroscale to develop technology to service satellites and remove debris. The company is working with the Japanese space agency JAXA on a mission to inspect an upper stage from a Japanese launch.

The company is also developing a servicer spacecraft called Life Extension In-Orbit to dock with geostationary satellites and take over stationkeeping and attitude control, similar to Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle. The life-extension work is being done in Astroscale’s U.S. office, which opened in April 2019 and now has 30 to 35 people working on that program.

Blackerby said that Astroscale is beginning work on a next-generation version of its ELSA spacecraft, called ELSA-m. That spacecraft, being developing in the company’s U.K. office, will be able to capture multiple pieces of debris.

The ELSA-d demonstration comes amid growing awareness, and concern, about the proliferation of orbital debris and the threat that debris poses to operational spacecraft. During sessions of the Space Symposium this week, both government and industry officials have emphasized the growing importance of space sustainability.

“Space traffic management is an absolute need, and we need to act urgently,” Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, said during a heads-of-agencies panel discussion at the Space Symposium Aug. 25.

He cited his agency’s own effort, Clean Space, to demonstrate technologies to deorbit debris. “Sooner or later, this will become a necessity,” he said of removing debris. “We have to really work on this.”

“We this as a huge step forward for us, certainly, but also for broader community and the on-orbit servicing ecosystem as a whole,” Blackerby said of the ELSA-d test. “We see this as the next step toward developing the technical capability for servicing satellites in space.”

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