ESA contract signals the emergence of a space debris removal industry

1 December 2020 By GlobalData

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Hans Schambye, CEO, Galecto

Image: Galecto

The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded the first contract for space debris removal to an industrial team led by the Swiss start-up ClearSpace. This announcement signals the emergence of two novel sectors within the space systems industry: on-orbit servicing and space debris removal.

There is a defence necessity for these capabilities, with the UK Chief of Air Staff placing the economic impact to the UK of adversary anti-satellite weapons at £1bn per day. These weapons could create extensive debris, making a means of mitigating this risk essential.

However, GlobalData’s report ‘Sector impact: military satellites’ highlights the extent of the space industry’s domination by the commercial sector, to the tune of a 4:1 ratio in funding terms. With this enormous commercial and defence demand, these emerging sectors are likely to expand in future.

In a space industry populated by giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, the challenges for start-ups in establishing a market position are significant.

“Emerging segments of the industry such as on-orbit servicing and space debris removal are likely to become crucial elements of the industry going forward,” says Harry Boneham, associate analyst at GlobalData. “However, market competition in these sub-segments is lower than in other, more established areas, such as launch operations and satellite payloads. This relatively lower competition may allow small firms such as ClearSpace and D-Orbit to gain a foothold in the global space systems industry.

“Northrop Grumman’s [mission extension vehicle] MEV-1 satellite demonstrated the feasibility of on-orbit servicing in April 2020, tugging Intelsat’s out-of-fuel IS-901 satellite into a new operational geostationary orbit. This achievement paves the way for smaller firms such as Astroscale to develop their own offerings in this nascent industry.

“These services are likely to become increasingly essential elements of the industry. Space debris represents an existential threat to the human use of space, and mitigation strategies such as space debris removal missions are essential in the near-term as the space ecosystem is rapidly becoming more densely populated. Furthermore, on-orbit servicing will aid in the creation of a robust and resilient space ecosystem which drives a new era of space exploration, ultimately lowering the cost of access to space. The economic potential of space will drive the expansion of both these services.”

// Image: The Intelsat 901 satellite was successfully returned to service using the Northrop Grumman MEV-1. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Controversy remains over the deal

When the State Department gave Congress informal notice of the potential deal last month, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Representative Eliot L. Engel said that the sale “would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge” adding that rushing approval of the deal was “not in anyone’s interest”.

Engel added: “My consideration of this sale will include several factors. First, we must maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, as provided in US law, and ensure Israel’s military superiority in the region, as Israel remains our most crucial ally there. Israel currently has exclusive access in the region to the F-35, which has guaranteed its military edge over the last several years. As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel’s military advantage at risk.”

The lawmaker said that increased activity from Russia and China in the Middle East meant that Congress would need ‘unimpeachable assurances’ that the fighter’s advanced technologies would be safeguarded. He added that a sale to the UAE would ‘inevitably’ generate demand for the jet from other neighbouring countries. In October, Qatar made a formal request to purchase the F-35.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Senator Bob Menendez said: “As feared, the details of this proposed sale suggest President Trump is seeking to rush through an increase of complex weapons systems into a volatile region seemingly without serious consideration of US interests or the legal parameters of Israel’s qualitative military edge.

“Claiming Israel will maintain its edge while offering Abu Dhabi the same number of these sophisticated stealth warplanes as Israel simply does not add up. Recklessly accelerating the timeline around a reportedly artificial deadline precludes sufficient consideration of these issues by the national security professionals in the Departments of State and Defense.”

Menendez added: “Congress has statutory authority over foreign arms sales and our responsibilities will not be relinquished. The American public has a right to insist that the sales of US weapons to foreign governments – especially those of this magnitude and lethality – are consistent with US values, our national security objectives, and the safety of our closest allies.

“The Trump administration’s refusal to answer our questions about how the national security interests of both the US and Israel will be served, or undermined, by such a sale is a sure-fire way not to get Congressional support to move forward with this sale.”
Will President-elect Biden change course?

After the potential F-35 sale became public in October, Anthony Blinken, a Foreign Policy Advisor to Biden and former Obama-era official, was reported by the Jerusalem Post as saying that he had ‘concerns’ about what commitments the US Government may have made to the UAE.

Since then, US President Donald Trump lost his re-election bid, with President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in January. Democrat Senator Chris Murphy said that the Trump administration approving the sale after losing the election was “completely inappropriate”, adding: “It's a transparent attempt to narrow options in the Middle East for President-elect Biden when he takes office.”