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Biotechnology

Startup eyes way to cleanse the heavens of space junk

TOKYO -- A Singapore-based aerospace venture is working toward a 2020 debut for a service to remove old microsatellites from orbit, anticipating a growing need amid increasingly crowded skies.

     Astroscale plans to launch a prototype spacecraft in the first half of 2018 as a start. A special adhesive will capture disused microsatellites, which will then be permanently taken out the picture by burning up in the atmosphere.

     Microsatellites, weighing less than 100kg, can be built for the equivalent of several million dollars because they use commodity parts and simple designs. The price tag is less than a tenth that for constructing a larger satellite.

     Satellite management companies plan to send dozens to hundreds of microsatellites into orbit in a single launch to continuously monitor the surface for such applications as disaster relief, farming, and mapping ship and plane routes. Some will likely provide Internet access.

     But these low-cost spacecraft will last just two to five years, compared with the 10- to 15-year life spans of larger satellites. And launching multiple microsatellites at once will make it all the more vital to get rid of disused ones before their numbers grow unmanageable.

     Astroscale was established by a Japanese national in 2013. It is headquartered in Singapore but has its research and development hub in Japan. The startup received a capital injection in March from a group including the Innovation Network Corp. of Japan and cutting tool manufacturer OSG.

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