The US Space Force would support commercial services to remove orbital debris


General David Thompson: “The more we can depend on commercial space for routine activities like transportation and debris removal, the more we can focus on national security.”

WASHINGTON – US Space Force Deputy Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said it would make sense for the government to pay companies to clean up space debris if such services existed.

Orbital debris poses a risk to spacecraft and safe operations in space, Thompson said March 16 in an interview with national security analyst John Nagl of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“I’ll pay by the ton if they can remove the debris,” Thompson said, noting that there are no companies that can do that today.

Nagl said someone in the audience asked if Thompson had heard of Astroscale, a Japan-based company with operations in Denver, Colorado, which plans to launch a debris removal mission later this week.

Thompson said he was not aware of the company. “I’m going to have to go to Google,” he said.

Regardless of which space industry companies end up providing successful space debris cleanup services, Space Force would be a customer, Thompson said.

“The more we can depend on commercial space for routine activities like transportation and debris removal, the more we can focus on national security,” he said.

Space debris includes human-made objects such as non-functional spacecraft and abandoned launch vehicle stages, and fragments of ruptured rocket and spacecraft bodies.

The European Space Agency estimates that there are 3,600 operational satellites in orbit and 28,200 debris objects. More than 10,000 satellites are scheduled to launch into low Earth orbit over the next decade.

Astroscale will fly the first commercial mission Saturday to demonstrate docking and debris removal technologies. The company will launch a satellite called End-of-Life Services by Astroscale Demonstration (ELSA-d) on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The ELSA-d spacecraft has a manager and a client satellite that will launch together. The manager will use proximity rendezvous technologies to dock with the customer’s satellite that will simulate a debris fragment.

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