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It’s Crowded Up There
Low Earth orbit will soon be home to tens of thousands of satellites—and that could be a huge problem.
Low Earth orbit—the region from around 100 to 1,200 miles above the ground—is virtually lawless. In fact, it has become so easy to reach that, without any space police, it’s slowly turning into a junkyard. By some estimates, more than half of all satellites are defunct, and some 27,000 pieces of debris over four inches in size are circling the planet. “At the velocity that this debris is moving,” Hickenlooper says, “even a piece the size of a flake of paint off your wall can pierce the skin of the International Space Station.” That’s nothing compared with what’s coming. Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, for example, is building a network, known as a megaconstellation, of some 40,000 satellites to beam the internet around the globe, and there are several equally massive projects in the works. Helping the United States play sheriff is a priority for Hickenlooper’s subcommittee, but until that happens, these Colorado companies are working on practical ways to make low Earth orbit safer, cleaner, and more organized.
It’s often easier to leave an obsolete satellite in space than it is to safely deorbit it (read: burn it up high in the atmosphere). Astroscale, a Japanese company whose U.S. subsidiary is based in Denver, wants to change that. Since March 2021, it’s been testing the first commercial spacecraft designed to capture and dispose of space junk.
Denver-based Atomos Space’s planned Orbital Transfer Vehicle will move freshly launched satellites to their final destinations. So, instead of paying for a massive rocket to place your satellite into the precise orbit you need, you can save money by having space Uber pick it up at a central location and move it into position.
In December 2021, Boulder-based Kayhan Space received $3.75 million in venture capital funding to develop an AI-powered tracking system that will tell everyone from telecommunications companies to university researchers when and where to move their satellites to avoid collisions—all for a convenient recurring fee, of course.
Orbiting Gas Stations
Changing and maintaining orbits requires fuel, and satellites are limited to what they bring with them. But not for much longer. Orbit Fab, which relocated from San Francisco to Lafayette in January, launched a prototype space tanker last summer, and in January, it inked an agreement with Astroscale to perform the first in-space fuel purchase in the near future.
Home (Far) Away From Home
Think rent in Denver is high? Imagine leasing real estate on a commercial space station.
Previously scheduled for retirement in 2024, the International Space Station (ISS) received a stay of execution last December. When the ISS finally crashes into a remote patch of the Pacific Ocean in 2031, though, NASA has no plans to replace it. Instead, the agency will simply rent office space on commercial space stations alongside other tenants. It’s all part of NASA’s plan to foster a robust economy in low Earth orbit so it can concentrate its efforts—and its funding—on the moon and Mars. But NASA needs to dole out a little more cash to spur the development of that rentable real estate. In December 2021, the agency awarded $416 million in contracts to three coalitions of companies designing their own floating facilities, two of which have strong Colorado ties.
A collaboration among Denver’s Voyager Space, Houston’s Nanoracks, and Lockheed Martin Space, the station could launch as early as 2027 and will feature a laboratory, with research and manufacturing capabilities, named for George Washington Carver.
Jeff Bezos’ Washington state–based Blue Origin, which leased a south Denver office in April, has teamed up with Louisville satellite and spaceship manufacturer Sierra Space to develop a “mixed-use business park” in orbit that could house everything from laboratories to a space hotel and film studio.
8,171: Satellites orbiting Earth in February, according to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network
Tiny satellites are big business.
Although it’s getting cheaper, space launches are still incredibly expensive: In 2018, it cost $2,720 per kilogram to reach low Earth orbit on a SpaceX rocket, the cheapest ride around. So, one of the easiest ways to save money is to put your satellite on a diet.
Enter smallsats, which can range from the size of a kitchen fridge down to circuit-board-shaped chipsats that weigh just a few grams. These lightweight satellites require less fuel to launch and can hitch rides with other payloads to drive down costs. Plus, thanks to recent advances in miniaturization, they can be incredibly powerful tools even at their itty-bitty sizes, says Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Jeffrey Forrest. He should know. The school collaborates with private smallsat firm York Space Systems, which keeps its headquarters inside MSU Denver’s Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building.
One of York’s goals, says CEO Dirk Wallinger, is to get its customers’ missions into orbit as fast as humanly possible, because by shortening the schedule they can reduce costs. The company also adds another money-saving element to the mix: mass production. York has developed two standardized satellite platforms that can be quickly tailored for customers such as Australia-based Earth observation company LatConnect 60. Wallinger predicts York’s second Denver-area manufacturing facility, which came online in May, will be able to build a new satellite in just 30 days and up to 75 of them simultaneously. “It’s kind of like the Model T,” Forrest says. “Once that cost per unit drops, the barrier to entry comes down.”