Recent years have seen a new wave of activism when it comes to space exploration: several new commercial players have emerged beside agencies and institutions, with visionary ideas for the future of humanity as a multi-planetary species.

Driven by a bold spirit and entrepreneurial mindset, companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing projects targeting interplanetary exploration and the deployment of permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars, while a wide range of firms are also planning low-orbiting megaconstellations, providing truly global high-bandwidth, low-latency communications to make our planet truly wired as never before.

In order to reach these ambitious goals in a reasonable timeframe and in a safe and sustainable way some enabling technologies need to be developed further. The first step is the development of a functioning infrastructure, capable of sustaining affordable exploitation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) into the longer term.

A wave of new and innovative services enabling space exploration

These requirements are fostering the development of services connected to this future LEO infrastructure, starting with innovative ‘space tugs’ to supply novel on-orbit Services: the refuelling, repair and inspection of orbiting spacecraft. This demand for such services is growing consistently: the on-orbit services market alone has been valued at 10$M in 2016, but is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decade, after global megaconstellations come on stream. Both private and institutional players are investing in R&D.

A fully-functioning LEO infrastructure will mean many more launch vehicles flown and more spacecraft in orbit. Accordingly managing this complexity in a way that minimises any resulting risk will be of paramount importance. To safeguard space infrastructure and guarantee LEO exploitation, Active Debris Removal (ADR) technologies are under development. The forecast growth in probability of a debris collision calls for immediate action. ESA’s ‘e.Deorbit’ mission is set to deorbit the first large item of debris in 2024 – an entire derelict satellite – while private ventures focusing on commercial debris removal are emerging.

e.Deorbit clamping the target
Copyright: ESA-David Ducros

What’s still missing and how to get there…

Despite impressive developments within the space industry in recent years, a number of challenges are still ahead…

The cornerstone of a new LEO infrastructure will be a powerful and versatile space tug, but how will a European space tug enter the market? Which use case for the space tug – from active debris removal or satellite servicing/transfer – represents the largest market? How competitive will European entrants be? What kind of new regulatory environments will emerge for these new space tugs to operate in? What liabilities will a European space tug? Furthermore, how can industry at large get involved? Can future satellites be specifically designed for servicing, or the servicing process have to be more complex?

These and many more additional questions will be open for discussion in the interactive roundtable on the ‘Market for Active Debris Removal and Satellite Servicing’ at 6:00 pm on October 24, during the Clean Space Industrial days