7. On the emergence of an active debris removal market

Camille Toussaint, École Polytechnique, France

Hervé Dumez, École Polytechnique, France

Economic theory has approached the question of market emergence from the perspective of transaction costs (Williamson, 1975[1]). Markets appear when transaction costs are low. However, recent research shows that this is not automatically the case. Markets are sophisticated institutions that require the construction of an architecture and categories shared by the actors (Jacobides, 2016[2]; Fligstein, 2018[3]; Navis and Glynn, 2010[4]). Even when a new market seems promising, if the different players only achieve a weak compromise on market architecture due to their diverging interests, the market does not emerge, as illustrated in the case of mobile payments (Ozcan and Santos, 2015[5]). In fact, the birth of a market is often a “chicken and egg” paradox. For example, historically, the development of the automobile market was linked to the proliferation of gas stations, but these same gas stations could not multiply at a time when there were only a few cars. The electric vehicle market is currently experiencing the same situation (Gnann, Plötz and Wietschel, 2015[6]; Delacrétaz, Lanz and van Dijk, 2020[7]; Zink, Valdes and Wuth, 2020[8]; Viola, 2021[9]). This paradox is ultimately soluble by the very dynamics of the market when the volume of products or services is very large, as is the case with electric vehicles. However, from this point of view, we cannot compare the prospects for cleaning up space debris with those of the electric vehicle. Cleaning up space debris seems to be more of a niche in the sense of Helfat and Lieberman (2002[10]). On the one hand, it poses a classic “chicken and egg” problem: industry players wait for the market to be established before engaging in costly developments of new technologies, themselves necessary for the emergence of the market. On the other hand, despite the increasing number of debris, the expected size of the market seems to remain quite limited. Finally, this market involves a large variety of players: the firms themselves, but also parent-company ventures (especially joint ventures) and new entrants (start-ups and entrepreneurial spin-offs).

The following question, therefore, arises: under what conditions can an active debris removal market emerge?1 Two hypotheses seem possible. First, if this market is not in itself of sufficient size, it could nevertheless develop as a segment of a stronger market, that of on-orbit servicing (OOS), and benefit from of its dynamics. Second, the ADR market could be a market in itself and, then, can only appear if forms of interaction and cost sharing between public and private actors develop. It is these two hypotheses that we propose to explore in this chapter.

To build our analysis, we carried out an inventory of OOS and ADR projects. From this database, we distinguish three categories of initiatives: 1) those that are carried out by private actors; 2) those carried out by public actors; or 3) those carried out by both types of actors at the same time. In this last category, the role of the actors varies. Space agencies position themselves alternately as a sponsor or as financial support. At the same time, firms play the role of implementer in the development of technology or active creators of a new market.

We first present the methodology adopted. Then we come back to the definitions of OOS and ADR. Finally, we discuss these results by considering the ADR market as a segment of OOS, or following its own dynamic.

To explore the two hypotheses presented above, we decided to study the projects carried out to fight the proliferation of debris. We adopted a qualitative methodology, based on the analysis of multiple cases (Yin, 2009[11]; Dumez, 2016[12]). This approach allows us to envision each case in a unique way, while facilitating the comparison between several projects of the same type.

Several steps were necessary to build a database of existing projects as complete as possible. First, we turned to the literature already reviewing and detailing multiple OOS projects (Davis, Mayberry and Penn, 2019[13]; Li et al., 2019[14]; Mark and Kamath, 2019[15]). A first list of initiatives emerged from mixing the information found in these articles. Then, we tried to enrich this list with more recent projects that did not appear in the literature, such as the Airbus PERIOD project launched in 2021. We also added less publicised initiatives, such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA’s) CRD2 project. Most of the research was carried out using data available on line, in space agencies’ annual reports, in international conferences’ proceedings and specialised journals. We do not claim to have listed every project that exists or has existed. Our data collection cannot be exempt from biases, given that some projects are not covered by the media or even remain systematically confidential in certain countries. However, we consider that our database covers a large part of the existing projects, as it relies on mixed sources of information such as the existing literature and information from space agencies. This data set should be considered as a base that could be completed for example by carrying out additional interviews with stakeholders.

Then, we gathered more precise information on each of the projects identified. We relied on public documents, as well as articles on specialised literature or international conference proceedings describing the development of a mission (e.g. Schervan et al. (2017[16]) and Graziano et al. (2017[17])). In some cases, we found open access presentations (e.g. the sales presentation of the Altius Bulldog satellites). Finally, on a more ad hoc basis, press releases have enabled us to specify the funding methods or the progress of the missions (e.g. the press release of the new PERIOD project from Airbus). For each project identified, a list of recurring criteria has been established. They are divided into four categories: 1) the main features of the project; 2) the timeline; 3) the structure of the project; and 4) the technology developed. Table 7.1 details the database structure.

Before presenting the results of our material analysis, it seems necessary to clarify the definitions of on-orbit servicing and active debris removal.

On-orbit servicing refers to the operations carried out on satellites in orbit, in order to inspect them, control them, repair them and manage their end of life. Several definitions of OOS are collected in Table 7.2.

OOS is not a recent concept. It dates back to the early days of the conquest of outer space, when astronauts on mission started repairing space stations. OOS has remained omnipresent in the daily life of astronauts and refers today to a broader set of activities. In the literature, there are several ways to categorise what OOS covers, based on the types of services, functions, operations performed or capabilities, as shown in Table 7.3.

ADR is often considered a subcategory of OOS and defined as “any system that removes or neutralises space debris” (Alver, Garza and May, 2019[24]). It therefore designates all the technologies used to clean space debris and concerns several types of situations, in which the debris object may or may not be co-operative or in which there is direct or indirect contact (Mark and Kamath, 2019[15]; Ribeiro et al., 2018[25]). The technologies considered are therefore numerous, especially as it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what is solely active debris removal and, more generally, on-orbit servicing. In fact, as most of the technologies are still in the development stage, missions often encompass several objectives.

Several studies identify existing projects developed to tackle the problem of space debris. Some relate to OOS in general (Davis, Mayberry and Penn, 2019[13]; Li et al., 2019[14]; Pelton, 2015[26]). Others focus more specifically on ADR (Colmenarejo et al., n.d.[27]; Zhao, Liu and Wu, 2020[28]). These articles address the issue of space debris from a technical angle by categorising the technologies used (nets, harpoons, contactless or with contact, vehicle, etc.) according to their nature and their effectiveness. For example, Li et al. (2019[14]) set out to identify all the methods used in general for OOS with a particular focus on “technical developments”. Zhao, Liu and Wu (2020[28]) seek to evaluate the different methods considered for ADR by proposing a model built around indicators. It seems to us that these projects are also of interest from more than purely a technical angle. Indeed, these initiatives adopt various forms and involve heterogeneous actors. Their financing and their organisation vary greatly. In this chapter, we propose to study these initiatives from an organisational perspective. Pelton (2015[26]) has already proposed a list of projects around ADR, distinguishing between those that come under the initiative of the private sector and the public sector. We build on these results, and propose to complement them with a set of other more hybrid initiatives, mixing public and private actors in different ways. With these clarifications made, we present the results of our study.

Our database consists of 42 projects. Most of them originate from the United States (21). There is also a significant number of projects in Europe (four at the European level, two in France, two in Germany, one in Italy, one in Sweden and two in the United Kingdom). In the rest of the world, the projects are divided between Japan (4), the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”) (2), Canada (2) and Israel (1) (Figure 7.1).

There has been a clear increase in the number of projects over the years as well as a sharp increase in private initiatives since 2010 (Figure 7.2).

We have distinguished three main categories of projects according to the nature of the actors that initiated them (private actors, public actors and a mix of the two). Different actors are gathered under the term “public actors”. To simplify, we distinguish space agencies from other public institutions that provide funding, such as the European Commission. Within each of these three main categories, we have distinguished several types of projects, which could vary, for example, according to their structure (single actor or partnership) and their activity (centered on the development of a technology or a service). We have divided the OOS projects and the ADR projects into two columns, highlighting, in bold, the ADR projects that also have one or more other dimensions of OOS.

The first initiatives related to OOS were led by space agencies and funded by national programmes (see Table 7.4). For ADR, the first project was the European Space Agency (ESA’s) ROGER robot in 2002, which aimed to test the first prototypes of robotic arms and harpoons. There were also other programmes of the same type in Japan, with SDMR developed in 2009 by JAXA or in the United States with NanoSail, a solar sail technology making it possible to de-orbit debris and tested by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2011. Private actors have since been largely involved in the development of this type of mission. Nevertheless, some projects have continued to be developed by public actors in some countries. This is, for example, the case in China with the Aolong-1 programme launched in 2016 that aimed to demonstrate its ability to de-orbit small debris by dropping it into the atmosphere. Public projects for the remainder of OOS are both more numerous and more recent. We note that they have mainly been developed by American institutions such as NASA (Robotics Refueling Mission with the Canadian Space Agency in 2009) or the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the Phoenix programme in 2011).

We also observe that space agencies are not the only public actors interested in ADR or OOS. Some universities are also involved in the deployment of this type of project. The University of Toronto, for example, spearheaded the CanX-7 initiative deployed in 2017, which aims to test the de-orbitation of low-orbital nano-satellites (LEO).

If space agencies were the first to take an interest in on-orbit or de-orbiting techniques and to develop missions until the 2010s, private initiatives are today at least as numerous as those from public actors (Table 7.5). Some firms relied on the development of new technologies; others sought to offer de-orbitation services, in particular through the construction of a vehicle or space tug.

Recently, some firms have developed new technologies thanks to internal financing and fundraising. Since May 2019, Tethers Unlimited has been offering its customers an ADR solution called the Terminator Tape, a mechanism built to deploy a conductive tape causing de-orbiting of the equipped satellite. MMA Designs, a company based in Colorado, is showcasing this same type of technology with dragNET, a net for de-orbiting debris, since 2016.

Other firms financed the internal development not of a technology, but of a service. In this category, ADR and OOS often overlap. The Space Drone Servicing Vehicle, developed by Effective Space Solutions since 2018, offers an on-orbit maintenance and repair service. On the ADR side, the US company Altius Space Machines, launched the Bulldog family of satellites in 2019. It provides capture, de-orbitation and maintenance services in low-earth orbits. Most of these OOS offers were developed after 2018.

While there are initiatives led respectively by private actors or by public actors, most of the identified projects are developed through partnerships between public and private actors (Table 7.6). We distinguished several configurations based on the roles played by public and private actors. Space agencies can indeed be sponsors or provide financial support. Firms can be performers of a contract with the space agency or position themselves as creators of a new market. Finally, a distinction was made between projects carried out in partnership with universities.

The space agency often plays the role of sponsor: it launches a call for proposals and chooses a firm or a consortium to carry out the project, build a satellite or vehicle, or develop a new technology. This classic form of partnership has been used several times in Europe for ADR, as in the e.Deorbit programme, launched in 2012 and funded by the ESA with a consortium of manufacturers including SSTL, Airbus, Kayser-Threde and Thales Alenia Space. This form of contract between public and private actors also seems common for OOS, particularly in the United States. In 2017, DARPA also invested USD 64.6 million in a project in partnership with Space Logistic to develop RSGS, a vehicle capable of extending the life of satellites in geostationary orbit.

In another configuration, the space agency chooses a firm – more often a start-up – to entrust with the responsibility of carrying out a demonstration mission, to create market dynamics. In 2009, the ESA launched a call for proposal as part of the Clean Space Initiative for an ADR solution, won by the Swiss start-up Clearspace surrounded by a consortium of firms. The resulting Clearspace-1 demonstration project is therefore led by a start-up. It is partly funded by the ESA, which has allocated EUR 70 million for the first three years, supplemented by funds raised by the start-up. Unlike a classic partnership, described above, financing is developed gradually at key performance milestones. The space agency seeks to spur the creation of a new market around space debris removal.

In some cases, the space agency is no longer the sponsor, but plays a financial support role. In the United States, the SOUL project developed by Busek in 2016 and mixing ADR and OOS services was funded by a NASA grant. This model also exists in Europe. The Decommissioning Device D3 technology of the Italian company D-orbit notably was funded by the European Commission, as part of the Horizon 2020 project. In this configuration, governments support the development of technologies, which continue to belong to the firms that developed them. Unlike CRD2 or Clearspace, space agencies are not involved in the development of these technologies, which is entirely entrusted to the company and the consortium of industrialists it has surrounded itself with.

Finally, a final form of partnership between public and private actors involves actors from the academic world. Indeed, some universities have developed projects in collaboration with firms. This is the case, for example, with the Remove Debris research programme, initiated by the Space Surrey Center, carried out by a consortium of firms and funded by the European Commission from 2013 to 2019.

The results of our study allow us to reflect on the possibility of the emergence of an ADR market. We can first hypothesise that it constitutes a segment of OOS, as an extension of it. However, the particularities of this activity prompt us to explore, in a second step, the specific dynamics of ADR projects.

The literature presents ADR as a sub-segment of OOS (Carioscia, Corbin and Lal, 2018[19]). OOS has long been considered an emerging market with a “chicken and egg” problem (Mueller and Kreisel, 2006, p. 2[29]; Knudtson and Peeters, 2010, pp. 5-8[20]).Today, this sector seems to have succeeded in going beyond this stage and is considered to be a market in its own right, still young, admittedly, but real: “The servicing industry has reached a tipping point at which a commercially viable OOS capability is becoming a reality. Advancement of technology, demonstration missions that reduce risk, and the prospect of customers throughout industry are driving the development of an OOS commercial market” (Davis, Mayberry and Penn, 2019, p. 4[13]). It could therefore be considered that the ADR market could rely on the more advanced OOS market.

Several arguments support this thesis. First, the technologies required for OOS and ADR are in part similar. Whether it is to de-orbit or repair debris, it is essential to approach the object in orbit and secure it properly (what is called rendezvous and proximity operations). Our results also show that many projects aim to simultaneously develop several segments of OOS, in particular space tugs, these space vehicles, mainly developed by private players, have multiplied in recent years. They are designed like Swiss Army knives and allow several activities to be carried out at the same time. For example, the US firm Momentus Space is currently developing the Vigoride, a vehicle capable of operating in low orbit on all segments of OOS. Likewise, the Airbus O-Cubed project, presented in 2018, aims to develop a space vehicle that could operate in both low and geostationary orbits, on repair, maintenance and de-orbitation activities.

However, our results highlight certain specificities of ADR, which lead to a discussion of the hypothesis being a segment of OOS. We can indeed assume that the ADR sector, a priori riskier and therefore less profitable, should be less attractive to private actors. However, our results show that ADR still arouses the interest of firms that develop technologies (such as Terminator Tape from Tethers Unlimited or Dragnet from MMA Designs) using their own resources, without external funding from public actors (see Table 7.5, second column). We also observe forms of partnerships between different private actors, such as the ELSA-D demonstration project developed by the Japanese company Astroscale and which was carried out in partnership with Space Surrey Technology Limited, a company derived from the Space Surrey Center and specialised in the marketing of microsatellites (SSTL was responsible for constructing the satellite used as the target for the demonstration of the Astroscale de-orbitation service). In addition, OOS projects seem to give rise to fairly classic forms of public-private partnerships, in which an agency orders the development of a project (such as NASA’s Dragonfly or OSAM-1 projects or DARPA’s RSGS SIS Vehicle) or owns it (NASA’s RAVEN). In ADR projects, the forms of this co-operation also seem more innovative. Some agencies delegate the management of the entire project to a start-up in the hope that a market will be formed after the demonstration (CRD2 from JAXA or Clearspace-1 from ESA). This model is inspired by the NASA innovation policy, which delegates certain forms of R&D to private actors (Mazzucato and Robinson, 2018[30]), but retains a strong involvement of space agencies in the development of the mission.

OOS therefore shares many features with ADR’s business. However, the way ADR projects are conducted differs from the strategies used for OOS in general. Although they evolve together and influence each other, these two segments do not seem to follow exactly the same dynamics.

From this observation, it seemed necessary to study in more detail the multiplicity of forms of ADR projects to understand their specific dynamics. We find all the configurations: public, private, but also public/private and within this public/private category, varied degrees of involvement of the different actors. Thus, an agency can only be a sponsor or financial support, a firm can only develop a technology or position itself as a market creator. We successively explore three types of dynamics: temporal, geographic and inter-actor.

We first try to observe the dynamics of ADR projects from a time perspective. In general, this sector follows the overall development of the space sector, with the increasing involvement of private actors. This trend is visible, for example, within the ESA. The ROGER project, led by the agency and financed by it in 2002, gave way to the e.Deorbit programme, also financed by public funds but with a call for proposals from a service provider and the integration of actors from the industrial sector, and led to the Clearspace-1 programme, which delegated all development to the start-up Clearspace and whose objective was to create a new market. In addition, the number of projects fully developed by private actors represents half of ADR projects (12), the rest being divided between public projects (7), and public-private partnerships (5). Nevertheless, it would be hasty to conclude that a simple evolution of a model of public development by agencies to a prevalence of independent private projects. In fact, we have seen the development on a global scale over the past five years of private initiatives (such as Elsa-D in 2021 or Bulldog by Altius Space Machine in 2019) and public-private partnerships (such as the programme CRD2 in 2019 or Decommissioning Device – D-Orbit in 2020), as well as public initiatives (Tianyuan 1 in China in 2016) and university projects (CanX-7 in 2017).

We can also try to study the distribution of ADR projects according to the geographic dimension. The United States remains the country from which the majority of ADR projects originate (10 projects out of the 24 ADR projects listed here). In the United States, it is mainly private US actors that invest in ADR projects, independently or financially supported by public funds such as NASA scholarships. In Europe and Japan, on the contrary, space agencies are more involved in the support and development of services and the creation of an ADR market, with many public-private partnerships in which they mainly play the role of sponsors, whether for technologies or services. Other space powers, such as China, conduct this kind of research related to the defense sector at the institutional level only.

Finally, links can be made between different ADR projects. Indeed, some players are positioning themselves on several projects simultaneously, such as Astroscale, which is developing its own Elsa-d demonstration with private funds in order to develop a new commercial service. At the same time, it was selected by JAXA to spearhead the CRD2 project and demonstrate another de-orbitation. Likewise, some firms such as Airbus Defence and Space play a central role within certain industrial consortia (for example in the Remove Debris research project or for the Clearspace-1 demonstration mission), while also launching internal vehicle development projects intended to offer OOS (O-Cubed Services). On the other hand, some space agencies, notably the ESA, seem particularly active in creating an ADR market. Certain actors, public or private, seem to play a predominant role in constructing the conditions for the emergence of the market.

We can therefore observe certain major trends in the development of ADR projects: an evolution towards an activity increasingly developed by private actors, differences in strategies between geographic regions and in the importance of certain actors.

In this chapter, we tried to understand how an ADR market could tackle the “chicken and egg” problem. We set up a database gathering OOS and ADR projects developed over the past 25 years. Our analysis led to three main results.

First, our study highlights the different dynamics of OOS and ADR. We know that some players choose to develop projects covering OOS and ADR at the same time, such as space tugs. But despite the technological proximity between the two segments, ADR displays original features. Therefore, ADR cannot be expected to develop as a simple segment of OOS benefiting from OOS’ momentum. If ADR is to thrive, it has to deal with the chicken and egg problem itself.

Thus, we focused on the ADR market, which seems to be in an intermediate phase and still too underdeveloped to identify robust trends. Its evolution depends heavily on international regulations and geopolitical issues. We show that solving its “chicken and egg” problem will not be a linear process. There is no clear evolution starting with pure public initiatives, going through a phase of public-private partnerships and ending with solely private actors in a pure market. On the contrary, our second result, we find that public initiatives, private initiatives, more or less pure, as well as multiple forms of partnerships, tend to co-exist. Actors simultaneously explore different alternatives.

Finally, we believe that this diversity plays a key role in overcoming the “chicken and egg” issue. Public intervention will be central in fashioning an ADR market. Therefore, public actors should not seek to select a unique form of action but should, on the contrary, continue to favour flexible and diversified forms of action. They should go on trying to create new markets, but also keep supporting financially private actors in developing new technologies or missions, as well as developing their own R&D projects.


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← 1. We are aware of the importance of the legal and military issues (Martin, 2020[31]; Tziouras, 2020[32]; Alver, Garza and May, 2019[24]), which condition the development of cleaning projects, but we have nevertheless chosen in this chapter to set aside these issues to deal with the issue from a market point of view alone.

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