There are a lot of aerospace startups in Japan these days. We are seeing innovation in everything from component manufacturing to satellite constellations to literal moonshots.
All of those, however, depend on the ability to place new satellites in orbit, and that is getting harder and harder due to the ever-increasing amount of orbital debris. It’s simply getting too crowded up there.
It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
- What is this Kessler Syndrome and why do we need to worry about it
- Why dreams of being an astronaut did not work out
- Why aerospace startups need their own manufacturing facilities
- How to bring down a satellite
- The trigger leading world governments to finally get serious about space clean up
- What are your options when your satellite fails to launch
- The single biggest risk in the space debris removal business
- Why there are so many aerospace startups in Japan recently
Links from the Founder
Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
There are a surprising number of new aerospace startups in Japan and today, you will be meeting the founder of one of the most innovative one. Nobu Okada founded Astroscale to solve the problem with space debris.
You see, every year, we are putting more and more satellites into orbit, and it’s gotten kind of crowded up there. There are zombie satellites that we have lost control over and there are satellites that have collided, resulting in thousands of small pieces of debris zipping around in random orbits at thousands of miles per hour, just waiting to crash into other satellites and begin a chain reaction.
Well, Nobu and the team want to do something about that. They have a plan to start de-orbiting this debris, and the technology side is fascinating. I mean, you might think that you have no real desire to know how to de-orbit a satellite, but trust me, you want to know how to de-orbit a satellite. It is really that cool.
Of course, Nobu and I cover much more than the technology. A big part of the story is how Astroscale has begun to build international recognition and consensus, and how they have actually constructed a business model around debris removal, and we also talk about the forces driving the sudden growth of aerospace startups and talk a bit about dancing satellite, but you know, Nobu tells that story much better than I can, so let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: We are sitting here with Nobu Okada, the CEO and founder of Astros scale was cleaning up space, so thanks for sitting down with us.
Nobu: It is a great pleasure to meet with you and thank you for this great opportunity to be on your podcast.
Tim: I’m delighted to have you, and I’ve got to say, Astroscale is not like your typical startup. You have a really unique mission, so can you kind of explain what your vision is and what you are trying to do?
Nobu: Our mission is to secure long-term space flight safety by removing the space debris, so space debris is jumping space. They are made of rocket upper bodies and old satellites, and fragments caused by the explosion, the collision among them.
Tim: How much space debris is up there?
Nobu: There are a variety of sizes of debris. If we count the object which is larger than 10 cm, there are more than 23,000, and the bigger ones are like, 8 m, 10 m, like a double-decker bus.
Tim: Okay, so it’s quite a range of sizes?
Nobu: Yeah, the small one is like, 1 mm, less than 1 mm, so yeah, it is a wide range.
Tim: And even like a 1 mm sized object can do a tremendous amount of damage to a satellite or a spacecraft.
Nobu: Yeah, right, they are flying with 7 to 8 km/s which means 40 times faster than the Bullet, and so it is quite fast, and they have a huge power to blow up other objects in space.
Tim: Part of the problem as I understand it is that space debris kind of multiplies on its own, that these larger objects will collide with each other and make more and more smaller objects, and the worst-case scenario is of the Kessler condition where there’s so many of these tiny objects, it becomes extremely difficult to launch a satellite or to launch a rocket.
Nobu: Yeah, that’s right. The density of the space debris has reached a certain threshold where what you said, it’s Kessler syndrome which is kind of the situation where a chain reaction of the collision happens. We already reached that threshold, so it is kind of a consensus among the space industries that we should remove large objects now before they get smaller.
Tim: Okay, so we are really at that tipping point where if we don’t do something now, we won’t be able to do anything in the future.
Nobu: That’s right. There are so many discussions and papers, research works when we would not be able to use the space anymore, and we don’t know; it all depends when catastrophic collisions happen. We don’t know, it might happen 100 years later or today, we don’t know. So, we should develop the technologies, business model, and regulations ready for removing the debris.
Tim: Okay. I want to get into the details of exactly how Astroscale is doing this and the challenges you’re facing, but before that, I want to talk a little about you. You founded Astroscale back in 2013 and at that time, you had no background in aerospace at all, so what attracted you to this problem and what was the trigger that made you decide, I’m going to start a startup to remove space debris?
Nobu: When I was 15, I went to NASA in America. There was a space camp program where we can have kind of a junior training to become astronauts. It’s kind of a fun and entertainment.
Tim: I remember space camp well. I wanted to go so bad when I was a kid. I never had the chance.
Nobu: But it’s fun. It’s fun and I met with real astronauts and NASA engineers, and they ignited a passion within my mindset, but what I found, there is no astronaut’s job – physician can be an astronaut, or a pilot can be an astronaut, but there’s no astronaut’s job.
Tim: So, they take someone who’s got the necessary specialty, and in the train that person to be an astronaut?
Nobu: Right. Right, that’s right. So, what I learned is I have to have some major and specialty somewhere else, and then change my career path toward astronaut, and then I went to the government, the Japanese Minister of Finance and I was working for a consulting firm. I ran two IT companies.
Tim: Well, this seems like an unusual path to become an astronaut. I mean, they don’t send out too many management consultants or financial types.
Nobu: I was almost forgetting about that, and then when I turned 40, when I was 39, I came to midlife crisis, kind of a typical situation where people feel about what should we do. I have several people who I respect, and then they did something good during their 40 years, but when I was 39, I had no idea what should I do during my 40s? All of a sudden, I remember the days in NASA, space. Space is something I really wanted to do. At the time, I had been running an IT company for 10 years, I had been dedicated into software industry. I felt like I really want to work on hardware too, and that keyword: space, and then I attended a couple of the space conferences to see what are the hot topics, and then I found that space debris was a growing threat, and then there was a space debris conference – I mean, dedicated for space debris in Germany in 2013, April, and what I saw were research concept simulations. I didn’t see any actions.
Tim: Yeah, well, I think the aerospace in general and space in particular is very much in the old decades long government research financing cycle. I can understand your attraction to the problem and thinking okay, we can apply modern business methods in modern start of initiatives to this seemingly intractable problem, but once you have that motivation, what is your next step? I mean, did you start talking to researchers? How did you get your technical team together, so you could credibly address this problem?
Nobu: I had a wide range of options. I can join the space agency, or I can be an independent consultant to advocate to this issue, or I can go to the university, and graduate school, and to study again, or I start up and give solutions. I had no idea about engineering. If you Google supply development – how to develop supplies – there’s nothing, actually. There is so many papers coming up but it’s very hard to understand.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it is an incredibly specialized field.
Nobu: Right. So, what I did is I got CD-ROMs from the space conferences printed out and I read all the papers.
Tim: Just hundreds of papers?
Tim: Wow, okay.
Nobu: I had intensive readings for 300. First reading, I got stuck in each jargon, and I tried to read through again and again. I got all the jargons in the end, and then I came up with hypotheses how to solve this issue, not only technology but also the business model and regulations, and then all the papers had an email account for each author, so I contacted them – “I read your paper. I really want to discuss more about your paper,” and I had a world tour. In my first year, I had a full round.
Tim: Four times around the world, just meeting with scientists and researchers?
Nobu: Yes, that’s right. The beginning was very miserable because I didn’t know the basics, but they are so kind to tell me the basics. One example is one professor said, “Okay, I can give you 30 minutes to discuss,” and in the end, we talked half a day.
Tim: Well, I mean, I guess that makes sense. I mean, you are trying to make a genuine effort to solve a problem that they are very concerned about.
Nobu: Yeah, that’s right. I was just a stranger, so I really have to say thank you to them, but I was very motivated because at the beginning, the people told me there’s no market and there is no proven technology, regulation is so complex, and they said no, no, no, but when I heard there’s no market, is it good news or bad news? I felt like it’s good news. When I was running IT company, I always had hundreds of competitors. When I heard there is no market which means there is no competitor, that’s a kind of blue sky for me.
Tim: Well, it’s like you say it, it is good that it is bad, right? So, it is good in that if you get it right, you have the whole market to yourself. It is bad because it is a lot harder to get it right the first time.
Nobu: That’s right. If there is no competitor, we can dedicate ourselves to do the right things.
Tim: So, you had tremendous amount of support from your worldwide tour for kind of self-education about the problem, and is that network how you recruited your initial team?
Nobu: Yeah, that’s right. For example, to develop satellites, there were two options: one is we do design, outsource manufacturing. Option two is, we set up our own facility and internalized technology and developed by ourselves which is better while one of the great space companies in America told me, “Hey, no, you should internalize technology. Otherwise, you cannot make innovation.” So, I decided to have our facility, but we needed capital first.
Tim: That takes a lot more capital.
Nobu: That is a way to make innovation.
Tim: All right. Okay, let us get into it: how exactly does Astros scale work? I mean, how do you de-orbit a satellite that does not want to be de-orbited? So, I assume that in most situations, there is no control of the satellite. It is kind of strange physics involved in trying to grab it. How does it work?
Nobu: Yeah, so like this: when you go up to space, there’s so many lights: Moon, Earth, sun, stars, garbage, and you have to identify which is our target? Which is our target debris? And then, we have to approach the debris which is flying with seven, 8 km/s in different directions, so we have to make sure our relative speed would become zero, and then once you successfully approach the debris, debris is tumbling. I mean, rotating, actually, so how are you going to capture it? There are so many ideas about this but what we would do is we would synchronize the motion – our chaser satellite – and capture satellite will dance with the target.
Tim: So, if it’s tumbling, your chaser satellite will sort of tumble with it?
Nobu: With it to make relative motion to zero.
Tim: That sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to do.
Nobu: Kind of something we have to spend a lot of time to develop technologies, and then capture them.
Tim: So, when you capture, is it like a claw? Is it an adhesive? Is it a net? How do you grab it?
Nobu: The capture mechanism depends on the target characteristics, but what we are developing right now is magnet-based capture mechanism.
Nobu: Magnetic. And then, once captured, we have to stabilize the motion, and then bring them down to the atmosphere and burn, but before bringing them to the atmosphere, we have to identify the center of gravity of the combined bodies. If we do not, if you give the power of thruster, you just tumble there.
Tim: Right, a tiny mistake instead of sending it back to Earth, you just make it spin faster.
Nobu: Yeah, spin faster, that’s it. So, that’s the whole sequence: identify, approach, dance, capture, stabilize, identify the center of gravity, and de-orbit.
Tim: So, the chaser satellite is a single use satellite?
Nobu: Our chaser satellite will bring together with the target. We had a lot of trade-offs. Demand is the cheapest solution. One way is one-on-one – capture one debris. The other one is kind of developed this is star of Star Wars and capture all the debris which is cheaper, and we found one-on-one is the best way.
Tim: So, a single mission would de-orbit a single satellite?
Nobu: Yeah, and mass production is the cheapest way.
Tim: Interesting. So, what is the launch schedule? What is your development schedule like?
Nobu: So, we are going to have a world first debris removal demonstration toward the end of next year. The day before yesterday, we had a ground station opening ceremony, so we are doing these kinds of jobs day by day.
Tim: So, what is that demonstration mission going to look like? What is going to happen?
Nobu: So, we’re going to bring the target debris together rather than using the real debris, and we will test different situations, so capture the debris, stable debris at the beginning, and then detach, and then make the debris start tumbling, and then capture the tumbling debris by synchronizing the motion, and then detach again and we say goodbye to the target far, far away, and then we lose it, and then we start finding it, and then approach capture again, and then finally, we bring target down and burn.
Tim: Okay, so it is sort of a catch and release?
Nobu: Catch and release.
Tim: For different scenarios.
Nobu: We play time in space. It’s really fun, big fun.
Tim: I’m looking forward to kind of watching it from afar. It’s really interesting. Now, it is interesting, but how do you develop a business model around this? Because, we got a bit of sort of the tragedy of the commons here where everyone agrees that this is a problem that somebody should solve. Nobody really wants to pay for it, so how do you build a business model around that? Who pays for this cleanup?
Nobu: It has been a kind of fun process for us to think of a business model because we know this will be a big issue. As of today, people don’t want to pay money at all, so there might be a kind of cross point where people want to pay money rather than doing nothing, and then –
Tim: Well, who would want to pay money? Is it governments? Is it private industry who has lost control of their own satellites, they want to de-orbit
Nobu: Talking about debris which comes in the future, most of the debris comes from constellations. Going for company would launch tens, hundreds, or thousands of satellites together rather than launching one single satellite. The satellite industry so far is something like this: launch one satellite, take picture of Tokyo twice a day. That’s kind of a typical satellite mission, but going forward, companies will launch many satellites as a flock, and then make sure we can see the satellites anywhere in time to have a coverage of the world. There are more than 100 programs constellations right now, but unfortunately, some percentage of the satellites go defunct in space due to various reasons – radiation, malfunction in solar power, or whatever, and then statistically, this will happen. Once they are satellite goes defunct, they have to replenish with new satellite to keep the coverage.
Tim: Oh, I see, so they need to put up a new satellite in that same spot.
Tim: Where the old satellite is, but they can’t do that until they pull the old satellite out of orbit.
Nobu: That’s our job, that’s our job. So, we are talking with constellation players very actively because they need us. So, it’s something like AAA in America, so in the highway, if there is a broken car, we have to get rid of it. The orbit is kind of a highly in space, and there are many satellites flying around the orbit. If there is a broken satellite, we have to do similar job like AAA, but not only the constellations; we already have existing debris above us right now, the environmentally critical objects like 5 m, 10 m. That is why it is one ton, three ton, eight ton, and those debris were littered by the government because so far, the space development has been done by governments, and we’ve been actively talking with governments in the world and until one year ago, they were just listening mode, but quite recently, they changed their mind set. Now, they understand how critical it is.
Tim: Well, and I think the fact that you are presenting a practical solution means that governments now have to make a decision. They can’t just say, “Well, we are studying in. It’s important.” The existence of Astroscale is probably driving that.
Nobu: I hope so, I hope so. The other driver is the cost. So, there were various types of papers, how much it costs to remove one large object, and the paper said somewhere, $200 million or $500 million, and then if we multiply that with the number of critical objects, it’s gigantic money. That is why government could not move forward, but we are thinking about radically competitive price, and then governments can move forward.
Tim: But what about the small debris you were talking about? So, sending a mission up to grab a large satellite and bring it down, I can understand the business model either for private constellations or governments acting responsibly, but what is the plan for all the tiny objects out there?
Nobu: That is a great question, thank you for asking us that question. So, there are so many tiny space debris – we can’t remove them; there are so many, too small, so the only way is to protect our space assets against the tiny debris collisions. So, to do that, we have to know the density of the small debris so that we can reflect that number toward our designing of the satellite. To do that, we have to monitor the small debris in space because we cannot see them from the ground, so what we did is last year, we launched a satellite called IDEA OSG-1 which has a large sensor of a tiny debris. Unfortunately, due to the launch failure, we lost the satellite.
Tim: Oh, sorry to hear that.
Nobu: It is sad news, we really wanted to operate the satellite and get data, but the process toward launch was also tough. Design a unique satellite and with the new team, ship out upward, into the site operation, and go through all the regulations, but we have successfully done these processes. So, although it was a sad event in the end, we have done a lot.
Tim: Are you going to be rebuilding and relaunching?
Nobu: We thought about a revenge strategy, we are thinking about it, but as of today, we see lots of growing demand for debris removal, so we are now focusing on the debris removal right now, but we’re always thinking about the tiny debris too.
Tim: So, it sounds like the strategy is to focus on the large debris because you know how to bring that down and hope that either Astroscale or some other clever company comes up with a way with dealing with the small debris in the future.
Nobu: We always want to have more players because we cannot do this by ourselves. There’s so many things to do. So, if we can do everything, that would be great, but if there are more players, that will also be great.
Tim: Okay. What would you say is the biggest technological challenge that you have left to solve before your vision of Astroscale becomes a reality?
Nobu: When we started this company, media would ask the question about what’s the risk? And then, I always had the same answer: there are technological risks, market risks, business risks, but today, I feel differently. Technology, we have a good team right now. Market exists right now. Businesswise, if we successfully deliver our solutions, services, we can make it perfect in the end. The risk is more in the organization right now. To meet the demand, we have to increase our capability, continue hiring the right people, and make great teamwork. Actually, our culture is really good. I mean, people gather for a purpose. It is quite a simple mission. It’s a clear mission, so that’s great, but we have to continue.
Tim: Yeah, it sounds like you feel like you are on the right track, and now, it’s just a matter of executing.
Nobu: Oh, yeah, right, execution. Yeah, execution.
Tim: Let me ask you a couple questions about Japan in general. So, there’s a lot of interesting aerospace companies coming out of Japan now and 10 years ago, it was basically zero. There were no aerospace startups in Japan. What’s changed?
Nobu: I see this as a worldwide trend. Now, I think we have 2000 space startups in the world. When I started this company five years ago, there were only three startups. 10 years ago, zero, and now, as of today, more than 20 right now.
Nobu: So, if we reach 50, I think there will be an echo system and a supply chain in Japan. This looks like the IT industry in 1988 or 1989.
Tim: But was there a trigger? Because, aerospace in the 40s, 50s, 60s was this tremendous time of change and innovation globally, and that there wasn’t a whole lot of innovation for about 30 years. I mean, there were improvements but there weren’t any of these huge changes, and then all of a sudden, there’s all this information again, and it is global; it’s not just Japan.
Nobu: But space industry has been flowing aviation, actually, by 50 to 60 years. Let me explain: so, Wright brothers had the first flight in 1902, I think, and then due to World War I and World War II, that technology, it advanced, and when the world war ended in 1945, several countries had flight technologies, and after that, the governments and the industry work together to develop kind of new airplanes.
Tim: Oh, it’s kind of commercialized that technology that was developed for the war?
Nobu: Yeah, right, and from 1953, people started to have kind of commercial flights, and then as of today, around 200 billion people are flying around the world. Looking at the space industry, in 1957, Russia launched its first satellite, and then thanks to the moon race and cold water, the technology advanced, and when Cold War ended in 1989, several countries had space technologies, satellite technologies, and then after that, the government and the industry worked together to launch kind of fundamental satellites, like weather forecasting, satellite broadcasting – actually, commercial flight started a couple of years ago, and then move into space.
Tim: So, is that –
Nobu: Can you see this? 50 to 60 years.
Tim: Yeah, I see. I think this is sort of a natural pace of the technology diffusing from government to big companies, to little companies.
Nobu: Yeah, that way, it’s kind of a flow, and so even 50 years later, space industry would be really, really good, of course, as we see in the aviation industry, but more players, more customers, more commercial players.
Tim: Well, listen, Nobu, before we wrap up, I want to ask you what I call my ‘Magic Wand’ question, and that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all – the legal system, the education system, the way people think about taking risks, anything at all to make it better for startups in Japan, what would you change?
Nobu: One thing I don’t like – I really like Japan, I love Mt. Fuji and Kyoto – but what I don’t like is kind of the mindset to ask something to the government, so I was working for that Minister of Finance in Japan and I was doing the national budgeting from 1997 to 1999. At the time, in Japan, the economy was kind of in a gang war; in a lost decade, got busted in 1989, right? During that period, many banks went into bankruptcy. All the people came to the Minister of Finance to ask for money, budgeting.
Tim: Oh, I see, so you think just people look to the government to solve their problems?
Nobu: Right, yeah, that’s right, and then those kinds of lobbying, not the wide way, because there’s a limit to the government. Government is not an almighty power.
Tim: But I think that’s interesting because I think the government itself is trying to give the message very strongly to industry, so in the 50s and 60s, the government kind of was an almighty power in Japan, and I think for example, when the Japanese government allowed Sharp to be sold, I think a lot of Japanese business were saying, “Oh, no, the government will never let a Chinese company by Sharp.” They will come in and they will bail them out, and they will make it work, but they didn’t.
Nobu: That’s right. Maybe there is the tendency people will always see how governments think, but actually, government does not have the capability to solve everything. So, looking at the space debris situation, everybody thinks – not only Japan – everybody thinks this is kind of an issue of the government or United Nations, but I don’t think so. They cannot do this. I mean –
Tim: Well, I think it’s going to require a lot of cooperation from the government. So, before, you use the example of the highway – clearing debris from the highway, but that only works because the government is it they are saying, you can’t just abandon your car on the highway. We have to enforce these rules.
Nobu: You are right, so we need rules, but we should not chase after money, money, money. I mean, to remove the defunct car, broken car, is not a one-day job. We have to continue this, so we have to do this as a business, not by the government-funding. Space debris is the same – it takes a long time, or we will have to do this forever, so it should be done by a business.
Tim: That’s kind of the ideal situation, isn’t it? Where the government sets the clear rules, and then the market figures out the most effective solution within those rules. I think you are right; the Japanese people in general do tend to rely on the government more to solve the problems. How much of that do you think is kind of that unhealthy relationship of relying on the government to solve problems and how much of that is sort of the positive side of that which is more like wanting to work with your community, to work with others, not necessarily just the government?
Nobu: Japanese people are loyal to the community where they belong. I mean, that might be in the village, that might be in the school, that might be in the company. I think that will generate kind of sleep, kind of teamwork-based that works well.
Tim: Do you think that is changing? Do you think the Japanese business and society is relying less on the government?
Nobu: It’s still relying on the government, but younger generation are more – elder people are still remembering the kind of days when they had economic growth during 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. From the 90s, Japanese economy changed, so the younger generation do not remember any of those kinds of good days, right? So, I will say Japan is kind of pupal stage. So, from looking outside, nothing is changing, but I’m looking inside, actually, lots of things are changing in terms of mindset, with actually talking, with communication or whatever, and so I’m sure this will become butterfly or just end up just a pupa.
Tim: But no, that does make sense. So, you are saying that the generation of Japanese who came of age in the 90s who were may be born in the 80s never saw this all-powerful government, and therefore, aren’t relying on it as much and are being more independent and more likely to start startups.
Nobu: Yeah, yeah, so as a Japanese, we have various types of the global companies. We are proud of that – Toyota, Sony, whatever – but to provide more confidence to the younger generation, I think we should have more successful cases in new companies. Softbank is doing great, that’s a really amazing company, but it’s already more than 30 years right now. If we have much younger companies who are changing the business and society in the world, younger generation will be more stimulated, get more confidence. I believe Astroscale will be one of them.
Tim: I think you are well on your way, and one of the most encouraging signs I see is almost every startup founder I speak with in Japan has plans to go global. So, I think we are seeing that change.
Nobu: Thank you very much. We are still on the way, more work to do.
Tim: Okay. Well, listen, Nobu, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.
Nobu: Thank you, Tim, thank you for your time. Thank you.
And we are back.
Okay, space is cool and I love nerding out over space tech. I mean, who doesn’t, right? But this mission and this technology was not what I found most interesting about our conversation.
What I found amazing and inspiring, really was Nobu’s approach to getting started with a huge problem. He started reading everything he could to understand as much as he could, and then he started attending conferences, and then calling people up and scheduling meetings to ask for help.
Now, I want to make something clear because a lot of the business books and the self-help books that target the millennial generation gives similar sounding advice, but they get it all wrong. Simply trying to connect to people you want to meet in order to get funding or to get a job is nothing special; it’s common, it’s even a little annoying. You are asking for people’s time and not offering anything in return.
What Nobu did was harder and riskier. He didn’t have a fully formed solution. He had no immediate goals or ask in mind, but the researchers he met saw something that convinced them that he was worth their time, and what they saw was someone who had made a massive commitment to solving a problem that they had also thought was important, that they dedicated the research careers to solving. Nobu was offering them something that they considered valuable, and when you approach people like this, they are often more than willing to help.
In fact, our conversation reminded me – you know, inspired me – to get off my ass and move forward in a couple of projects that I’ve been putting off because I considered them just too complicated, or in one case, just too crazy. Hopefully, I will be telling you more about those in the near future.
But you know, despite the Western stereotypes, Nobu and founders like him are not uncommon in Japan. In fact, they never were. It’s just that before, the system made it very hard for them to follow their ambitions and to create new and innovative company, but now that the system has started to change, more and more Japanese innovators are stepping into the spotlight, and you will be meeting them right here on Disrupting Japan.
If you want to talk more about space or satellites, and I know you do, Nobu and I would love to hear from you, so come by disruptingjapan.com/show129 and let’s talk about it, and hey, I know you’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but when you get the chance, please leave us an honest review on iTunes. It’s really the best way you can support the show and help get the word out.
But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.