Clearing up space junk: The system that's ready to decommission satellites before they even launch

An Italian startup has come up with a novel way to tackle the growing problem of debris in space.

Space junk can pose a threat to astronauts and space stations. Image: Johan Swanepoel/ iStock

When Lou Reed wrote 'Satellite of Love' in 1972, he couldn't have imagined that one day satellites would bring to mind images of abandoned space trash instead of romantic fantasies.

The problem of space debris has become huge, as growing numbers of objects have been left to wander in the atmosphere. In 2013, more than 500,000 pieces of 'junk' were tracked as they orbited the Earth.

The small objects include rocket stages, old satellites, and other fragments of varying origins that could easily collide with each other, or with operational spacecraft, causing damage and presenting a threat to astronauts and man-made artifacts like the International Space Station.

Several techniques to tackle the issue, from harpooning to parabolic nets or laser brooms, are being investigated to either reduce the overall number of objects in orbit or mitigate the impact of those still in the sky.

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One potential answer to the problem is being proposed by D-Orbit, an Italian startup founded in 2011 by a team of experienced aerospace professionals. Headquartered in Milan with branches in Florence and Lomazzo, near Como, and with subsidiaries in Portugal and California, the company was born out of CEO Luca Rossettini's interest in environmental sustainability.

"Today, space has to deal with the same problem with which air, earth, and water have been affected in the previous years: pollution," he told ZDNet. "The market trend is to launch thousands of new satellites in the next decade. Solving quickly the space junk issue has therefore become a must."

D-Orbit's proposal is to 'freeze' the space junk. Rather than creating a product that could remove existing debris from space, Rossettini and his team have designed a decommissioning device to be installed in new spacecraft before launch.

The device could later be remotely activated when the satellite has reached the end of its lifecycle, propelling it out of its orbit in a safe and controlled way, either into re-entry trajectory for low-earth orbit satellites, or into graveyard orbit for medium earth orbit and geostationary Earth orbit satellites.

The first official use of D-Orbit's technology is scheduled for next year. After its two-month mission, a small, 5kg satellite will be removed from its orbit using the Italian startup's decommissioning device. All of the decommissioning system's components have already been tested on earth or in space, from its engine to its electronics.

Things haven't always been easy for Rossettini and his team. "There have been essentially two kinds of hurdles: the first being raising funds to address the significant costs of the R&D activities that have filled our daily life during these years. And the second was finding our space in a community well-known for being formed of only a few, giant players," Rossettini says.

The availability of venture capital in Italy is still nowhere near that of the US and that disparity was even wider in the past. However, in 2011, when the entrepreneur - back in Italy after some time spent in the US thanks to a Fulbright Grant - started looking for funding in his homeland.

Rossettini succeeded in closing a first round of investment, for an undisclosed sum, with Fondamenta SGR (later bought by the Quadrivio SGR fund). Three years later, at the end of 2014, it secured another round of €2.2m, led by Quadrivio (through its TTVenture fund) and Como Venture.

There is still a long way to go for D-Orbit, and further capital will be needed to support the 2016 launch of the decommissioning device (the company is also considering a crowdfunding campaign). Yet, if everything works out as planned, the rewards could be huge. According to a recent Deloitte study, the global commercial satellite industry generates about $200bn in revenue annually; of that, $2.1bn is the potential market for decommissioning devices.

Money, though, is just part of the story and not the only driving force behind D-Orbit's endeavour. In 2008, Rossettini, after graduating in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan, participated in the selection process for would-be astronauts at the European Space Agency. He made the shortlist of 200 candidates, but didn't make the final cut. Some years later, it looks like Rossetti has found another route to the stars.

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