Entrepreneur Nobu Okada has set off on a mission never before undertaken in the annals of human history — cleaning up Earth’s space junk.
Man-made space debris comprises everything from defunct satellites to abandoned launch vehicles and even tiny flecks of paint. This floating junk is threatening our ability to explore space.
“Space debris is there because of humans, and solving this problem has been a hot topic among academics and experts,” Okada, 44, said in a recent interview in Tokyo. “But at the moment, no one has an answer. And if nobody is doing anything about it, I thought I’d have to solve the problem myself.”
A former bureaucrat with no experience in aerospace engineering, Okada founded Astroscale PTE Ltd. in 2013 in Singapore, where he lives, to confront the problem.
An estimated 750,000 pieces of space junk longer than 1 cm are circling the Earth at speeds of around 8 km per second, or 28,800 kph. If smaller pieces are included, that number would probably jump to roughly 150 million, Okada said. If the debris hits satellites, spacecraft and space stations, it might destroy them, putting even more debris into orbit.
Okada said nobody has traveled to the moon since NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972 because it has become extremely risky to get through this layer of debris.
Astroscale, which opened a research and development center in Tokyo in 2015, is developing technologies to monitor space debris and remove it by forcing defunct satellites into the atmosphere so they will burn up upon re-entry. It plans to launch a microsatellite named IDEA OSG1 to conduct the world’s first sub-millimeter debris-mapping mission and plans to launch it as early as the end of this year.
The microsatellite will collect near real-time data on objects that are too small to detect via ground-based systems. Timely mapping and tracking techniques for sub-millimeter debris will provide a better understanding of low-orbit environments and ultimately improve spaceflight safety.
His company’s second project, ELSA, which stands for End of Life Service by Astroscale, will carry out satellite removal and is under development in Tokyo. Astroscale plans to use magnets and a secondary method to capture the machines. The ELSA-d satellite will be launched to demonstrate the project in the first half of 2019, and Okada hopes to turn it into a business by 2020 by mass producing similar satellites.
Calling himself a “space trash collector” or “space sweeper,” Okada told The Japan Times he would never have come this far if he hadn’t gone through a midlife crisis just before turning 40.
Okada graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in population genetics in 1995. He then entered the Finance Ministry but quit in 1999 to get his master’s degree in business administration from Purdue University in Indiana. He then worked as a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Company and managed IT businesses in Japan, China, India and Singapore for 10 years until 2013.
“I was relatively successful in the IT industry then,” Okada said. “But frankly speaking, I was searching for the meaning of my life and for a place in a society where I could make a real contribution.”
Then he remembered that, from the time he was a boy, he had always loved space and often read the monthly science magazine Newton. He even attended a space camp run by NASA when he was 15.
“It was just like a junior astronaut training camp that continued for two weeks,” Okada recalled. “Training included a spacewalk in conditions similar to the moon and learning to balance our bodies in a zero-gravity environment.”
During the camp, he had a chance to meet Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri, who at that time was undergoing training at NASA. Mohri gave the young Okada a handwritten message that he still cherishes today. Translated, it reads: “Space is the place where you will make a great contribution.”
It was in April 2013 when his life changed. With his love of space still deeply rooted in his mind, Okada, then head of an IT firm, went to an academic conference in Germany on space development where space junk was a hot topic. Many experts gave presentations on the issue and talked about potential solutions. But Okada was not impressed because no one had a real plan of action.
“I came from the IT industry, where business ideas were implemented on a weekly basis,” he said. “Just talking about concepts for years is equal to doing nothing. I was furious that no one was serious about solving the problem.”
Ten days later, he founded Astroscale.
He began his quest by learning as much as he could. He read more than 700 papers on space debris and met with academics and executives in the space industry, bombarding them with questions and proposals.
Initially, the responses to his proposals were all negative. People told him there was no market and no way to make a business model for such a project and no realistic technologies available to make it happen. They also said international regulations and funding issues would be a stumbling block.
But his efforts eventually began to pay off. He gained backing from Yuki Precision Co., a maker of aerospace components, and OSG Corp., which makes cutting tools. With their support, his company could focus on making smaller satellites and reducing the development and launching costs.
So far, Astroscale has secured $53 million from private investors like Taizo Son, brother of SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman Masayoshi Son, companies like venture firm Jafco Co. and All Nippon Airways Co., and the state-backed turnaround firm Innovation Network Corp. of Japan.
He has also built a strong team of fellow space sweepers comprising more than 20 specialists from different fields to join him. Earlier this month, Chris Blackerby, NASA’s former representative in Asia, joined his company as chief operating officer.
Blackerby told The Japan Times that many government agencies, such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), are interested in cleaning up space debris but lack an established solution.
“Astroscale has become kind of synonymous with space debris. It’s really impressive what Okada-san and his team have done in the past few years,” Blackerby said, noting that many people knew about Astroscale’s project when he told them he’d be joining the team.
“In NASA, people have come to recognize that this is one of the leading space venture companies in Japan, and even in the world, in terms of understanding the issue and bringing in the right people.”
Today, Astroscale says it is getting inquiries from around the world.
This year, the Geneva-based World Economic Forum selected Astroscale as one of its Technology Pioneers, a title it gives to startups with the potential to significantly impact business and society through design, development and implementation of new technologies and innovations.
“Though there are still small issues to tackle, we have cleared major technological hurdles,” Okada said. “So the next step is to execute our plans.”
In the next five to 10 years, more than 10,000 satellites are expected to be launched, so Okada feels his mission is urgent.
“If we continue at this pace, collisions between satellites will be unavoidable and space development will not be sustainable in the near future. So the question is whether to solve the problem this generation or wait until our children’s generation,” he said. “Unless we do it now, it will be too late. So, I’m determined to do this no matter what.”
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the second Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Key events in Nobu Okada’s life
1988: Participates in NASA Space Camp.
1995: Graduates from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture.
1997: Joins Finance Ministry.
1999: Quits Finance Ministry.
2001: Earns MBA at Purdue University.
2001: Joins McKinsey & Company.
2004-2013: Manages IT companies in Japan, China, India and Singapore; named CFO of Turbolinux Inc.
2013: Founds Astroscale PTE Ltd.
2014: Speaks at Tedex Tokyo and receives two awards from Tech in Asia.
2015: Establishes Astroscale’s research and development center in Tokyo.
2017: Astroscale named a Technology Pioneer by World Economic Forum.