The active debris removal competition is being studied by the X Prize Foundation

The active debris removal competition is being studied by the X Prize Foundation

Active debris removal (ADR) system development may change how the space industry evaluates and accepts the degrees of risk involved in system development and operation. The industry is currently concentrating on methods and procedures for debris mitigation. ADR systems have been discussed and developed again recently, though, as there are more government and commercial space actors.

The development and testing of the ADR system are spearheaded by a number of organizations, and several demos have taken place recently as well as more that are currently being planned for the foreseeable future. Although these advances show promise for the growth of an ADR market, there are still a number of technological, operational, and political issues that need to be resolved first.

To encourage technological advancement in the area, the X Prize Foundation is contemplating holding a prize competition with an emphasis on clearing space of debris. Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the X Prize Foundation, stated during a panel discussion hosted by the U.K. Space Agency and the Secure World Foundation at the Fourth Summit for Space Sustainability on June 23 that her organization was looking into various options for how to administer a prize to encourage the creation of active debris removal systems.

The work is still much in its own infancy. She said, “This one is tough.” “The design isn’t complete yet,” she said. For a prize for debris clearance, the foundation is considering three possibilities. One would be to get rid of rocket bodies, which are the biggest and possibly riskiest bits of debris in orbit. Changes in policy will be a fantastic conversation starter from an awareness standpoint, according to her.

The removal of numerous “cubesat or larger” objects is a second possibility. The most difficult choice, according to her, would be to clear a smaller debris cloud, which would be the third option. She said, possibly by merging two of the choices, “We’re still trying to assess all the different factors.

Even though the prize’s design is still up in the air, Ansari claimed to be convinced of the value of holding such a tournament. One purpose is to increase understanding of the space debris issue and potential remedies beyond the space community. Public awareness-raising through competitions is “one of the aspects we do incredibly effectively at X Prize.”

To encourage technological development is a secondary motive. Instead of setting “clear, measurable targets” for teams to accomplish in their preferred manner, she stated, “We never try to foresee a solution or strategy to tackling an issue.  Sometimes, that results in incredibly innovative and unique methods.” The creation of the laws required to permit active debris clearance could be encouraged by a contest with prizes. If we’re going to get a strong economy here, it is a significant barrier that requires improvement.

Ansari expressed her desire that the prize would be developed over a five-year period but did not provide a timeline. That ruled out more ambitious initiatives, she claimed, such as not merely clearing away the garbage but also recycling it in some way in space. She remarked, “Everyone told us that you’d have to consider this a ten to the fifteen-year prize, not a five-year prize. The prize, however, might be set up so that the debris is transported to a “junkyard” orbit rather than being deorbited and then used again in the future.

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