Space’s Trash Collector? A Japanese Entrepreneur Wants the Job
TOKYO — Sitting in a drab industrial neighborhood surrounded by warehouses and factories, Astroscale’s Tokyo office seems appropriately located for a company seeking to enter the waste management business.
Only inside do visitors see signs that its founder, Mitsunobu Okada, aspires to be more than an ordinary garbageman. Schoolroom pictures of the planets decorate the door to the meeting room. Satellite mock-ups occupy a corner. Mr. Okada greets guests in a dark blue T-shirt emblazoned with his company’s slogan: Space Sweepers.
参观者只有走入公司内部，才能看出其创始人冈田光信(Mitsunobu Okada)不仅仅是渴望成为一个普通的垃圾处理者。用来挂在学校教室的行星图片装饰着会议室的大门，卫星模型占据着屋子一角。冈田接待着宾客，深蓝色的T恤上写着公司的口号：“太空清洁工”(Space Sweepers)。
A vacuum chamber used to test parts of Astroscale’s IDEA OSG 1 satellite at the company’s factory in Tokyo. The satellite, scheduled to be launched next year, will compile data on the density of space debris.
在Astroscale位于东京的工厂内，用以对其卫星IDEA OSG 1的零件进行测试的真空腔体。这颗计划于明年发射的卫星，将负责搜集与太空碎片的密集度有关的数据。
Mr. Okada is an entrepreneur with a vision of creating the first trash collection company dedicated to cleaning up some of humanity’s hardest-to-reach rubbish: the spent rocket stages, inert satellites and other debris that have been collecting above Earth since Sputnik ushered in the space age. He launched Astroscale three years ago in the belief that national space agencies were dragging their feet in facing the problem, which could be tackled more quickly by a small private company motivated by profit.
“Let’s face it, waste management isn’t sexy enough for a space agency to convince taxpayers to allocate money,” said Mr. Okada, 43, who put Astroscale’s headquarters in start-up-friendly Singapore but is building its spacecraft in his native Japan, where he found more engineers. “My breakthrough is figuring out how to make this into a business.”
Over the last half-century, low Earth orbit has become so littered with debris that space agencies and scientists warn of the increasing danger of collisions for satellites and manned spacecraft. The United States Air Force now keeps track of about 23,000 pieces of space junk that are big enough — about four inches or larger — to be detected from the ground.
Scientists say there could be tens of millions of smaller particles, such as bolts or chunks of frozen engine coolant, that cannot be discerned from Earth. Even the tiniest pieces move through orbit at speeds fast enough to turn them into potentially deadly projectiles. In 1983, the space shuttle Challenger returned to Earth with a pea-size pit in its windshield from a paint-chip strike.
And plans are being made to make low orbit even busier, and more essential for communications on Earth. Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are aiming to create vast new networks of hundreds or even thousands of satellites to provide global internet connectivity and cellphone coverage. The growth of traffic increases the risk of collisions that could disrupt communications, as in 2009 when a dormant Russian military satellite slammed into a private American communications satellite, causing brief disruptions for satellite-phone users.
Worse, each strike like that creates a cloud of shrapnel, potentially setting off a chain reaction of collisions that could render low orbit unusable.
“If we don’t start removing these things, the debris environment will become unstable,” said William Ailor, a fellow at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center in California. “We will continue to have a growing debris population that could affect the ability to operate satellites.”
“如果我们不着手清除这些东西，有碎片出没的环境会变得很不稳定，”美国航空航天公司(Aerospace Corporation)的威廉·爱勒(William Ailor)说。“碎片的数量将继续与日俱增，操控卫星的能力可能会受到影响。”美国航空公司是位于加州的一个由联邦政府提供资金的研发中心。
Enter Mr. Okada, a former government official and internet entrepreneur, who said a midlife crisis four years ago prompted him to return to his childhood passion of space. As a teenager in 1988, he flew to Alabama to join the United States Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, and later chose to attend business school at Purdue University, the alma mater of his hero, Neil Armstrong.
就在这时，冈田出场了。他曾是一名政府官员和互联网创业者。他说，四年前的一场中年危机让他找回了对太空的热情。1988年，还是十几岁的少年的他飞赴阿拉巴马州，到位于亨茨维尔市的美国太空和火箭中心(U.S. Space and Rocket Center)参加美国太空训练营(United States Space Camp)。后来，他选择到普渡大学(Purdue University)商学院就读，那所大学是他心目中的英雄尼尔·阿姆斯特朗(Neil Armstrong)的母校。
Later, Mr. Okada realized that he could use his experience in the start-up world — he had founded a software company in 2009 — to get a jump on other space debris projects.
“The projects all smelled like government, not crisp or quick,” he said of conferences he attended to learn about other efforts. “I came from the start-up world where we think in days or weeks, not years.”
He said he has created a two-step plan for making money from debris removal. First, Astroscale plans to launch a 50-pound satellite called IDEA OSG 1 next year aboard a Russian rocket. The craft will carry panels that can measure the number of strikes from debris of even less than a millimeter. Astroscale will use this data to compile the first detailed maps of debris density at various altitudes and locations, which can then be sold to satellite operators and space agencies, Mr. Okada said.
他说，为了从碎片清除业务中赚到钱，他已经制定了一个分两步走的计划。第一步，Astroscale打算在明年利用一枚俄罗斯火箭发射一颗重量为50磅(约合23公斤)、名为IDEA OSG 1的卫星。这颗卫星届时携带的面板，可以测量哪怕是由不到一毫米的碎片制造的撞击的次数。冈田说，Astroscale会利用这些数据，就各种高度和位置的碎片密集度绘制出首批详尽的地图，然后可以将地图卖给卫星运营商和航天机构。
“We need to get revenue at an early stage, even before doing actual debris removal, to prove that we are commercial, as a business,” said Mr. Okada, who added that he had already raised $43 million from investors.
The more ambitious step will come in 2018, when Mr. Okada says Astroscale will launch a craft called the ELSA 1. Larger than its predecessor, the ELSA 1 will be loaded with sensors and maneuvering thrusters that will allow it to track and intercept a piece of debris.
更加雄心勃勃的一步将在2018年迈出，冈田说，到那时Astroscale将发射一颗名叫ELSA 1的卫星。ELSA 1比前一颗卫星要大，将会配有使其可以追踪并拦截碎片的传感器和机动推进器。
The company settled on a lightweight and simple approach to grabbing space debris: glue. Astroscale has worked with a Japanese chemical company to create an adhesive that would cover a flat surface about the size of a dinner plate on the ELSA 1. The craft would bump into a piece of space junk, which would stick to the craft and be dragged out of orbit. Both the ELSA 1 and the debris would burn up on re-entry.
该公司决定采用轻巧简单的工具来捕获太空碎片：胶水。为了研制会被涂在ELSA 1的一块餐盘大小的平坦表面之上的粘附剂，Astroscale正跟日本的一家化工企业合作。撞到这颗卫星的太空垃圾会粘附其上，并被带离轨道。ELSA 1及碎片都会在返回大气层时燃烧殆尽。
Mr. Okada said the key to bringing down a price tag of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars is to reduce the weight. He said that the Elsa 1’s adhesive would weigh just a few ounces, far less than, say, a 100-pound robotic arm, and that his company’s engineers had found ways to bring the spacecraft’s weight down to 200 pounds, making it much lighter than other proposed craft.
“In the U.S., aerospace engineers are more interested in working on missions to Mars, not waste management,” Mr. Okada said. “Japan doesn’t have so many interesting space missions, so engineers were excited by my idea.”