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Aerospace & Defense

Japan's Astroscale takes step toward space repairs business

Acquisition of Israeli startup intended to allow in-orbit satellite servicing

Space startup Astroscale has acquired an Israeli company that aims to service satellites in orbit.

TOKYO -- Japanese space startup Astroscale said Wednesday that it has acquired an Israeli startup that aims to carry out maintenance on satellites in orbit, a move heralding its expansion into an emerging field of space services.

The Israeli company, Effective Space Solutions R&D, is developing a spacecraft that will fly to an aging geosynchronous satellite running low on fuel, attach to it, take over its maneuvering and keep it in correct orbit. 

Geosynchronous satellites stay at the same spot over the Earth and are often used for satellite broadcasting. Such satellites, traveling 36,000 kilometers above ground, are expensive to launch or replace.

Effective Space has yet to demonstrate its technology in space. It is hoped, however, that it can significantly reduce the cost of maintaining satellite-based communication networks.

In-space servicing is already taking place. In February, a Northrop Grumman spacecraft successfully docked with a 20-year-old Intelsat communication satellite. It was the first docking of commercial satellites in orbit and is intended to help the satellite stay in service for another five years.

"Such services are part of a trend toward space manufacturing," says Shigeki Kuzuoka, a space analyst. In addition to midair fuel supply for satellites, there is also discussion of repairing satellites in orbit, he added.

The acquisition represents the first major diversification of business activity by Astroscale. So far, the seven-year-old Japanese startup has focused on developing spacecraft for removing space debris. The company plans to demonstrate its orbital debris removal technology in space in the latter half of this year. 

This sort of removal requires a spacecraft to attach itself to debris, so the technologies behind the two companies' services are similar, Kuzuoka said.

Astroscale is raising funds for the latest expansion, and says that it has secured money from Japanese IT and satellite service company I-Net. Astroscale raised a total of $140 million in the previous four rounds, with government-backed Innovation Network Corporation of Japan and ANA Holdings as major shareholders.

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