NASA has awarded space logistics startup TransAstra a contract to came up with an inflatable capture bag fit for transporting orbital debris and asteroids.
1. Inflatable capture bag
TransAstra was selected to receive $850,000 to help NASA build an inflatable capture bag and test its technology in a ground demonstration. The startup’s space debris-catching bag builds on existing technology developed by NASA for its Asteroid Redirect Mission. In essence, the process is designed to envelop the target debris before using inflatable struts to close the bag, allowing a small spacecraft to ferry it into a different orbit or toward reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. TransAstra proposes using its small spacecraft, Worker Bee, to capture targets using the bag technology.
We originally developed this small capture bag prototype to demonstrate asteroid mining in low-Earth orbit with a synthetic asteroid. But we subsequently realized this is the greatest thing ever for orbital debris cleanup.Joel Sercel, TransAstra founder and CEO, for SpaceNews
2. High expectations
TransAstra is confident it will be possible, at some point, to deploy smaller bags to retrieve CubeSats as well as larger ones for rocket parts and even asteroids weighing as much as 50,000 tons. The startup also proposes missions that would capture several targets using a single bag.
The benefit of the bag technology over other methods is that it doesn’t require the target to have any fixture to grab onto, said Joel Sercel, TransAstra founder and CEO. “It [also] does not require docking, which is a precision maneuver. You have to be precise enough to open the bag, get the bag around this thing and close the bag.”
3. Space debris
The space debris problem, also known as space junk or orbital debris, refers to the growing population of defunct human-made objects in Earth’s orbit. These objects include old satellites, spent rocket stages, fragments from previous collisions, and other debris created as a result of space exploration and satellite launches.
TransAstra has also partnered with space startup ThinkOrbital to find a potential method for transporting debris to an on-orbit processing plant. They came up with a study showing that an on-orbit processing plant could result in a six-fold cost reduction compared with the cost of transporting objects toward a reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The space debris problem will continue to grow as more and more satellites and spacecraft are lifted into Earth’s orbit. Recent estimates from the European Space Agency near-Earth space determined the existence of a massive 36,500 pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimetres, about a million objects 1 to 10 centimetres in size, and an astounding 130 million fragments smaller than 1 centimetre.