U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC) may hold an industry day to hear from commercial companies about possible technologies for space debris removal, the profit potential for such companies for that mission, and how Space Force could leverage commercial expertise.
During a question and answer session with reporters at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on Apr. 6, Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, the program executive officer of assured access to space at SSC, said that space debris removal “has certainly been a topic of public conversation among our leadership, in particular.”
“This is a great area where commercial is a little ahead of us in terms of the thinking about the technology, about how to go out and do this,” he said. “I’m very excited to try to help accelerate that thinking in commercial industry.”
In terms of an SSC operations and assured access to space perspective, “debris can be seen as a force support type of mission, but it’s right for leveraging the SSC commercial office and trying to firure out cooperative ways with commercial industry to move forward,” Purdy said.
Through the Orbital Prime effort, the U.S. Space Force’s innovation arm–SpaceWERX–has sought innovative ideas from industry for space debris mitigation and removal for objects as large as defunct satellites and as small as objects in the centimeter range (Defense Daily, Jan. 6).
Space Force has said that it tracks more than 40,000 objects in space–only about 5,000 of which are active satellites. Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson has said that there are at least 400,000 smaller objects on orbit that Space Force cannot reliably track, that pose a significant risk to U.S. satellites, and that threaten the long-term safety of space.
Ideas for space debris removal include capture of the debris, its de-orbiting, elimination/vaporization of it in the Earth’s atmosphere, or moving it to graveyard orbits.
“Ideally, I would love to have some kind of a small dollar activity to start putting a few dollars out there to start getting debris,” Purdy said on Apr. 6. “It actually has an interesting tangential relationship to launch because we have ODMSP [Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices] compliance that we have to go through on launch. There’s an interesting dicussion that says I’d like to take that whole argument off the table, and the future launch enterprise gets into removing more debris than we put up, almost like carbon credits or something like that. That’s kind of what we’re thinking right now.That’s very leaning forward and in its nascent stages, I would say.”
The U.S. established ODMSP in 2001 to tackle the increase in orbital debris relatively near Earth.
Russia’s test last November of a direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon–a collision that generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris–spurred Space Force’s desires for more tools, including sensors, to track the debris.
Debris removal and satellite repair will likely be important Space Force missions in future years.
The Nov. 15 Russian ASAT test generated roughly half the debris of a 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT test that created 3,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters.