Orbital Transfer Vehicles and Space Debris

Satellite launch and operation leaves debris on-orbit. Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs) actively can remove space debris and prevent new debris from ever reaching space.

The Issue

4,000 empty rocket upper stages. 3,600 dead satellites. 22,000 total tracked objects. Tens of millions estimated total debris pieces. Our use of space over the past six decades has left a disturbing legacy.

This amount of debris is not sustainable. With satellites and debris traveling at speeds greater than 13,000mph, an undetectable, minuscule object (think single screws) can completely disabled satellites. Even worse, on-orbit collisions (of which there have been at least ten to date) are very energetic, creating more debris and adding to the problem. The nightmare scenario depicted in Alfonso Cuarnón’s Gravity, in which a chain reaction of on-orbit collisions destroys the space environment, really can happen [2].

The growing space debris problem is well understood but not actively managed. Despite posing a risk to the entire $350B+ space industry, and all of the sectors that are underpinned by it (global communications, navigation, logistics, disaster response, and weather prediction to name a few), there are no funded efforts to remove debris and little regulation to prevent build up.

The Hidden Benefits of Orbital Transfer Vehicles (OTVs)

Key Atomos technologies enable debris removal: efficient in-space propulsion and rendezvous and docking technologies. Our OTVs can capture and move objects in space (with no required modification) and efficiently return for more. Technologies comprising agile control systems, robotics, relative navigation systems, and complex software to automate docking, are foundational for actively removing debris. However, Atomos’ OTVs promote more sustainable uses of space in other ways.  Atomos' OTVs allow increased launch vehicle capacity by promoting ride-sharing to lower orbits. With OTVs, satellites going to different orbits can ride-share. This means fewer launches to get the same number of satellites to orbit. Additionally, as OTVs allow rockets to drop off satellites in lower orbits, rocket upper stages spend less time de-orbiting (weeks or months instead of years). In some cases, upper stages can be actively de-orbited.

As OTVs lower costs when getting to higher orbits, more orbits become more accessible for satellite operators. Orbital design for commercial satellite missions is a careful trade between cost and performance. In the past, satellite operators have had to compromise and utilize a lower orbit than otherwise desired due to the high costs of reaching higher orbits. This is leading to intense concentrations in certain, affordable orbits. Atomos’ model reduces the cost constraint, allow more orbital diversification, reducing overcrowding and collision risk.

Once a mission is over, a satellite must de-orbit itself. Ideally, this happens by burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, but this is cost-prohibitive in high orbits (holding that much excess propellant is expensive). This has led to the practice of disposing of satellites in “graveyard” orbits, now populated by thousands of dead satellites. Although these graveyard orbits don’t interfere with popular operational orbits, it's not a permanent solution. Fortunately, end-of-life-disposal costs are another cost constraint alleviated by Atomos. Operators, with whom Atomos has spoken, are now considering active de-orbit at end of life for their constellations in higher orbits.

OTVs offer a new paradigm for doing business in space that allows new businesses, more conscientious operations, and promotes stewardship of the space environment.

[1] https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/About_space_debris

[2] http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-debris/kessler-syndrome/

[3] https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/st_space_49E.pdf

[4] Technology demonstrations are tentatively planned, including ESA’s ClearSpace-1 and JAXA’s CRD2

[5] There are guidelines which are not strictly enforced https://spacenews.com/orbital-debris-mitigation-guidelines-still-useful-if-complied-with/ and https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/st_space_49E.pdf

[6] https://www.spacedaily.com/reports/The_GEO_Graveyard_May_Not_Be_Permanent_999.html