The proliferation of space junk in low Earth orbit is a problem that isn’t going away. Instead, it’s getting worse — a fact that grabbed headlines last November when a Russian direct-ascent anti-satellite test produced enough new pieces of debris that astronauts aboard the International Space Station were forced to conduct immediate safety procedures in case of a collision. (The U.S. recently said it would no longer perform such tests.)
It’s not just military action that could exacerbate the space junk problem: Satellite mega-constellations, like those planned by SpaceX, Amazon and Telesat, could also generate more debris, if only for the reason that more objects in LEO means more opportunities for those objects to collide.
Does that mean mega-constellations are incompatible with cleaning up LEO? Greg Wyler doesn’t think so. His new venture, E-Space, is aiming to reconcile the two by sending up a mesh communications satellite network composed of spacecraft that will also capture small debris before deorbiting at the end of their useful life.
The company is staying mum on how, exactly, the satellites will capture and deorbit small debris, citing the proprietary nature of the technology. For now, the company is focused on sending up three demonstration satellites as part of Rocket Lab’s next ride-share mission, currently slated to launch no earlier than April 28 from the launch company's site on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula. While these demo satellites will not be testing the orbital debris capture mechanism, the company says the trio of spacecraft will validate other systems and technology.
Beyond the ability to grab space junk, the satellites will also have smaller cross-sections and will automatically deorbit in the case of any malfunction -- two features that will also boost the constellation's sustainability, the company says. The satellites will use a "peer-to-peer" communication model and a "Zero Trust" topology to ensure secure communications for companies and governments.
“When we talk about building 100,000 satellites or more [ … ] we are carefully monitoring to make sure that we are significantly, hundreds of times less impactful and basically in the noise from a probability of collision perspective,” Wyler said. “So while we have more satellites than anyone else we have a negligible increase in the probability of collision.”
The exact number of satellites E-Space plans to eventually send up is also unclear, but as the above quote indicates, the company is bandying around vast numbers that far exceed any existing or planned satellite constellation.
Wyler is no stranger to the space industry, having founded O3b Networks in 2007 and OneWeb in 2012. This newest venture raised $50 million in a seed funding round in February led by Prime Movers Lab. The company has grown to over 50 employees, and E-Space intends to commence mass production of its satellites next year. Wyler said the company could send up demo satellites with the orbital cleanup capability in 2023 or 2024.
He likened the mega-constellation-orbital debris conundrum to oysters in a river. "How does putting up more [satellites], how is that better?" he said. "Well, how are more oysters in the river better? Oysters clean the river. You have a lot of oysters, you've got a really clean river."