Transcript: Space4U podcast, Chris Blackerby

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi — John Holst with the Space Foundation and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today, we are joined by Astroscale group CEO, Japan, Chris Blackerby. Chris served as the NASA attache for Asia, the senior space policy official in the U.S. embassy, Tokyo from 2012 through 2017.


In that capacity, he identified multiple opportunities for cooperation in the region, served as strategic space advisor to the U S ambassador to Japan and senior us government officials acted as an official intermediary between NASA and partners in Asia, in negotiating agreements and resolving disputes and participated in numerous outreach events, highlighting NASA activities.


Chris began working for NASA as a presidential management fellow in 2003, while at NASA, he was a leader in forging international cooperative partnerships around the world, in the fields of earth science space, science and human space exploration from 2005 through to 2007. Chris was the executive director of the NASA advisory council, which provided advice to senior national NASA officials.


On future policies and plans. Chris received a BA in history and education from the university of Richmond, Virginia in 1995 and a master’s in international relations from the university of Rhode Island in 2002, in 2009. Chris earned an MBA from the McDonough school of business at Georgetown. Yeah.


University. Thank you for joining us today, Chris. Thanks John. So that’s a lot of history. And I think some people might be interested to know that in spite of the fact that you are fronting Japanese technology space company, um, they would say that your background doesn’t look that taken off non-traditional path that I took to get here.


So how did that happen? Yeah, well, It’s life life happens. Uh, I started doing different stuff. I was always interested in space. Space was always fascinating, obviously. And, and things that happened, uh, through childhood, such as the challenger disaster, I was the child then, and that kind of those issues really get cemented in your, in your mind and, and, uh, drive you toward wanting to do something bigger, but I’d never really pursued spaces as my, uh, educational background.


I was a history teacher actually for two years. After graduating from college. And then I moved to Japan for a bit and lived in Japan, uh, traveled around Asia, went back to graduate school. And, um, got, as you said, a presidential management fellowship, which is a great program that the U S government does where they take people who are just graduating from a graduate school program.


And they put them in a two-year track in a federal agency that kind of pushes them toward a management level. Position and you can work in different agencies. And so one of the places that I was working that I chose to work in after being selected was NASA and working on their legislative aspects and their policies and outreach and things.


And of course in the capacity of doing that, you get to know all of the technical people and you get to start to understand the technical side of things a bit more. And so I did that for, uh, 14 years with NASA, uh, working mostly on those. Policies education outreach and supporting international cooperation.


And NASA has a lot of international cooperation that people don’t traditionally think about. But so much of what NASA does is partnerships with other countries, whether it’s Europe or Russia, or Canada, Japan, uh, and even smaller countries that don’t. Traditionally have space programs. So it was a fascinating place to work.


Get to understand the technologies and meet the incredible engineers and scientists that work at NASA. NASA also has three overseas representatives. They have one in Paris that covers all of Europe. They have one in Moscow that covers Russia and the human space flight and one in Japan. And I got the job in Tokyo.


So I moved over as the attache. Uh, to the, to NASA attache at the us embassy in Tokyo. And I did that for five years. I love Japan, uh, families, Japanese, uh, wife, and I wanted to stay. And so I knew the founder and CEO of Astro scale Nobu kata is a Japanese national, and he founded the company about six years ago and we started talking and he offered me to come on as a COO.


And that was about a year and a half ago. So that’s a. Consolidated PA, uh, story. But, uh, it’s a, as I say, a non-traditional path to, to being where I am today. Very cool. Well, actually, I just have a question then, as far as the history background, a little bit, has that helped you think? So I think a liberal arts background, whether it’s history or philosophy or economics or anything.


Always helps. It helps to have a broader mindset of, uh, of the world. Uh, it helps to think and to write. So I think it really helps. Now we’ve talked about how obviously STEM is vital, uh, to, uh, getting involved in these space fields and. If you’re interested in space science, technology, engineering, math, that’s where you should focus.


That’s that is what drives it. But you need the support stuff, too. You need the education and the outreach, you need the lawyers and the teachers and the administrators and things like that to make, to make it work as well. So I think that background does help in, in life and in this industry. I’d say in this role, you’re a little more than support, but still, I, I think it gives, uh, the arts, the liberal arts guys, a little hope for space, which is kind of nice.


So you presented a tech track, my tech track yesterday. Thank you for that. Sure. Great. You’re here at space symposium. You’ve got a booth open. I think you have a spiel normally. Why do you think people should care about space and space debris as far as what’s going on? Well, we should care about it because we use it every day and we’re going to use it more and more already.


Right now, everybody who’s listening to this. I’m imagining that. Before, you’re listening to this. At some point you have used space, you have used space to order a Uber or to get directions, to go somewhere or to call family, uh, by Skype that’s in another country, or to do something with your bank account space drives so much of what we’re doing on a daily basis.


And on just a long-term scientific basis, understanding climate change, you know, requires satellites to really globally understand the entire system requires satellites. It’s something that we take for granted because we use it every day and we don’t see it. When we see something, we understand that we’re using it and, and we say, Oh, that’s important.


We should take care of it. But if you can’t see orbits, you can’t see the satellites. Maybe just don’t think about it, even though your smartphone and many other things that you’re using every day is completely reliant on it. We’re going to get more Alliant on it. That reliance is not going to decrease.


As we move into a world with IOT and internet of things, and we move into a world of self-driving cars. It’s just going to become more and more important that we have reliable satellite communications and satellite information technology. So orbits are vital. Uh it’s I like to consider it as another natural resource, the same way.


Any natural resource that we mined from the ground or rivers or lakes or mountains trees, the earth orbital environment is a natural resource and we need to protect it the same way that we want to protect terrestrial environmental. What makes that more complicated is it tends to be more international too, right?


Incredibly global. So it makes it more complicated from what you just referenced, John. The international side, basically what you’re saying, it makes it more complicated from a policy perspective. How do we address issues? Uh, in orbit when no one owns orbit, it makes it hard to, uh, administer rules. It makes it hard to have penalties for anything, uh, when orbit is owned by everybody and nobody.


So that part is, is challenging. Uh, and it also makes it more difficult from a technology perspective. Uh, if something, you know, we’re, we’re our company we can talk about is focused on bringing down debris in space. If there’s debris on the ground, we can go drive it. You know, space debris is nothing new.


It’s been something that’s been going on for decades. So why has no one really talked about this before? I mean, th this, the Kessler syndrome was coined in 78. So yeah, 40 years ago. So why have we been aware of this potential problem for 40 years, but no one has really taken any substantive action to do anything about it.


It’s a legitimate question. I think there’s a variety of, of reasons why, and they’re the reasons what, the reasons that us as a company are addressing right. I’d say we’re not just a technology company, we’re addressing the various aspects of the problem. And so for space debris, people have always known it’s a problem, but for reasons of policy, for reasons of business and for reasons of.


Technology, it hasn’t really been addressed. So on all of those three, three aspects, um, from a policy perspective, it’s hard to address this problem because there is no one overarching authority that, that monitors, uh, the orbital environment. So it’s tough to get a. Global solution to this problem. And it’s not necessarily a priority because at least up until now we’ve recognized is that it could be a problem, but the whole space is big, big, uh, concept has taken hold.


And, uh, I I’ve, I talked about it a little bit earlier about the orbital commons being, uh, being something of a, uh, uh, natural resource and earth natural resource. It’s the same way that. People weren’t prioritizing, uh, terrestrial environmental issues for a long time because things were big. Ocean is big.


It doesn’t really matter if there’s more debris there. That mindset has clearly changed and it’s changing for earth orbit as well. So, but for the last 40 years, it hadn’t for the last since, since, well, it lasted 60 years since the Sputnik was launched in the late fifties. We’ve steadily increased the amount of debris, but it’s never been seen as an immediate necessary thing that we have to take care of.


So from a, from a policy perspective, it hasn’t been a big issue, both from domestic governments or an international body. From a business perspective, it’s hard to close a business case. Uh, you know, who’s going to pay for the removal. So people aren’t really running down to try to solve this thing. Cause they’re not really sure how it’s going to get paid for it.


And from a technology case, it’s stuff. How do you do the technology? Did you actually remove the debris? So for those issues, those reasons, no one has really jumped up and said, they want to try to solve this, this problem, but people have been talking about it. For a long time, but no, one’s come up with a real, uh, solution that can be, can be applied.


Why do you think, I think today though, or even in the past five years, I mean, although we’ve seen some of these, you know, space debris, I’ll call them scare stories, come out even earlier and, and yes, there’s a kernel of truth. To this, right? We do need to be concerned. If you’re going to put something into orbit, you really should be doing the closing the loop as far as what do we do with the satellite?


Once we go as a parking orbit. Good enough. Or is it something that we just can actively deorbit within a few months of the end of life of the satellite? So how does that work? Why. I mean, why now? Why now? The civil government, you know, whether it’s NASA or Jackson or, uh, you know, the Russians or the thrust cosmos, or even the military have for a long time been putting them up there.


And I think part of it is the mission has been priority. And so the eco part of it is not been their focus. Right. So, yeah, no, it hasn’t. It hasn’t, but again, I think that’s changing. I think the mindset is shifting a bit on that. And I’ll answer your question, John, by talking about the two different business lines that we’re going to try to pursue.


So for all the debris that’s up there now, the current debris, why is now the right time to go get that accidents happen? They have happened, uh, you know, was the Iridium cosmos collision of about 10 years ago that created a significant amount of additional debris. Showed us that we can’t just turn a blind eye to it.


It’s there, there could be, it could be a problem. And so with the current debris, that’s up there, we can even remove a couple of pieces a year. Uh, we were going to significantly reduce the chance that something like that will happen. So let’s start bringing some of the debris that’s up there now down, and, and then it won’t create smaller debris, which will present a risk to a bunch of other, a bunch of other satellites.


Covenants are recognizing that, and governments are recognizing that. Citizens are reliant on these salads as we discussed earlier. So they have a responsibility in terms of protecting their citizen-based to make it as safe as possible in the urban environment. So there’s that aspect of bringing down the stuff that’s there.


That’s why, that’s why the governments are getting more interested. The other side of our business is to take care of future debris. That is, don’t add any more debris to what’s already up there. So in that sense, the entire landscape of the space industry world is changing over the last several years.


We’ve seen it basically since the start of the century, uh, you know, space X successfully doing what they’ve done in terms of creating this launch vehicle company that many people didn’t think was possible to do as, as a basically startup things like the X prize, creating incentives. For these, uh, incredible missions to do things like what’s created Virgin galactic or the Google lunar X prize, which didn’t have a winner, but it created it spurred a lot of innovation.


So we’re seeing all this innovation, this small technology there’s new space coming into being, and what that’s doing is, is potentially going to be driving down launch costs, driving down satellite development costs. And that’s going to probably add more debris to the market. There’s a lot of. Money being driven in here.


If you look at the last 15, 10 to 15 years, the amount of venture capital investment that has gone into space is incredible. It’s skyrocketed. So where are people going to start to get concerned is where they have money. When people invest in something they want to protect that investment. So if you have a lot of money in it, there’s going to be an interest in making sure that that investment stays viable.


So what we’re talking about for the future debris is. Let’s make sure that all of these satellites, that launch, as you said, have a plan to deorbit themselves at the end of their mission lifetime. Right now, it’s a generally accepted rule that 25 years after your mission ends, you should either go to a parking orbit.


If you’re in geo. Or deorbit if you’re in Leo basically, is that too long? Should it be a shorter timeframe? That’s something that I think governments are starting to consider. Companies are building in deorbit plans into their launch missions. Now all of the large constellations, Amazon recently announced to be the latest to join this group, uh, launching hundreds to thousands of satellites into similar orbits, all of them.


Say they have a deorbit plans, which is great. They’re all being very responsible, which is excellent. But what happens if that satellite fails, which can happen, obviously machines can fail and machines have failed in orbit. So if that satellite fails, it would need to, it would not be able to be brought down potentially.


Right. And if it’s at a thousand or 1200 or even 900 kilometers morbid, it’s going to be up there for centuries. So what we’re proposing doing is before these satellites launch put a. A deorbit mechanism. Our proposal is a plate is a plate that has a ferrous material on it. And so it can be attached to, with a magnet.


And so that plate serves as kind of a hitch on the back of a car. Your car, every car has a little hitch on the back. So if it fails, uh, the, in the U S it’s triple a. The car, you know, a travel company come and put their thing hits, pull it up onto a tow truck and bring it out of the way. So our proposal is to put this, uh, docking plate on all satellites it’ll serve as the hitch and will be the truth or the car service company that comes up satellite service company attached to with a magnet, right.


And brings it out of, out of commission, but there is a tradeoff, right? I mean, ferrous material tends to be a little heavy and especially if you’re working in the small set of cubes, that domain, uh, one of the reasons why you’re attracted to that is because you’re not paying as much in mass costs to lift.


So yeah, it wouldn’t be that heavy. We’re not really talking about how have you, but it’s it’s minimum. Okay. It’s just enough to get them to it’s it’s very, very minimally intrusive. Uh, it’s not going to inter interrupt the, uh, activities of the satellite, cause it’s not magnetic in itself, but our solution is, is quite light and, uh, and quite minimal in terms of size.


So we think that there’s a benefit there. Now we wouldn’t be suggesting, attaching this plate to a one U cube set. Right? Those are pretty low. Anyway. Probably going to deorbit within, you know, they’re usually, you know, a lot of them launch from station. So they’re going to be below 400 anyway, they don’t have proposal.


They’re going to be coming out soon. And what we’re looking at is a bit larger in size. Everybody should have the deorbit plan. Our target market is a bit larger and a bit higher up probably. Yeah. I think most of the one use that I’ve seen, there are some exceptions, but typically they’re supposed to have a mission life of six months or something like three months.


And then they’re low enough that they’ll come down naturally. They’ll open that’s right. Okay. So our plan is that a little bit larger? So the size of the docking plate, it is very light, but it won’t have a negative impact on the mass of the sounds get into the planet a little bit. I mean, so. You’re. I mean, how does, what does Astro scale bring to this?


As far as what mechanisms we’re talking magnetism here in a little bit. So if you don’t mind talking about that, that’d be, so what I’ll do the way I’ll talk about this as the explain our, our technology demonstration mission that’s plan to launch next year, it’s called Elsa D end of life services by Astro scale D for demonstration.


And we’re planning to launch that. Uh, next year, what that’s going to be is a, a satellite. That’s going to be a servicing satellite, and it’s going to be attached to a small piece of dummy debris, basically a client. That’s a stand in for a client. We’re going to launch these two satellites attached.


They’re going to be connected to each other when we launch them and we’re going to launch them to our desired orbit. And when they’re in orbit, we’re going to separate them. On the piece of dummy debris on the makeshift client, we’re going to have one of our docking plates that I just explained. Uh, it’ll have optical markers on it so we can track it on the servicing satellite.


The one that we’re planning to replicate and build for future missions, it will have a small. A protrusion. It’s not a robotic arm so much, but it’s something that will come out of it. And it will have a magnet on the end of that protrusion. And so they’ll separate an orbit and then the larger satellite, the servicing satellite will approach the client and attach.


So what we’re working on here are the guidance, navigation and control proximity operations technologies that can allow the larger satellite, the servicing satellite. To find the client satellite, and we’re going to do this three different times. The first time we’re just going to separate and we’re going to maintain a stable client satellite.


So we can just show that we can find an attach. That’s the first thing we’re going to do. The second thing we’re going to do is we’re going to Institute a tumble in the client, satellite. So simulating a piece of, out of control. The Bri the servicing sounded light will then come over and start looking for that plate with the optical markers.


Now it’s going to be tumbling, so it’s not gonna be able to find it right away. It’s going to map the tumble of this, uh, client satellite with the servicing satellite. So it’ll go around and be looking for that plate. And when it finds it, It will attach to it and they’ll stabilize again. And the third time we’re going to go, we’re going to lose the serve that the, uh, the client satellite and some of the servicing satellite using both ground-based and on-board sensors, we’ll find it and attached to it.


And then we’ll deorbit the whole mission. So there’s a, there’s a video of our concept of operations on our website, Astro So you can see it in video of what we’re planning to do. The third part of that sort of reminds me. So I used to work in missile defense agency as a contractor there. And it reminds me a little bit of mid-course tracking a little bit where you’re dealing with cold lost objects.


You’re not sure. So you have to use other sensors to help guide in things. Yeah. Well, and in ours, Astro scale satellite. Yes. That’s what we would do. And in our case, on the case, I just described what we’re doing for the technology demonstration. And what we’d be doing for all of those future debris. As I talked about our two business lines, the future debris, it would be semi co-operative docking.


So the, the, the client satellite would have on something that we knew what it was, we’d be prepared to attach to it. Uh, for the debris that’s already up there, it would be more like non-cooperative because that does not prepared with a, with a plate. It doesn’t have ferrous material on it. You can’t use a magnet to attach to it.


So we have to then think of another attachment mechanism, right? The guidance, navigation and control the approx ops. The propulsive technologies will be generally the same, but the capture will be different. And so that’s why we have to, we’re going to be able to share some technologies between the two business lines, but certainly there will have to be some adjustments.


For missions that will focus on debris. That’s currently up there and we’re looking at various possibilities for that likely something like a robotic arm, something of that nature. So you’ll be testing other technology aside from magnet for this we’ll have to, we’ll have to. So the, the magnet is, is what we’re focused on first for the, for again, all of that debris that all of the future launches.


So do you see, as far as Astro skills, A spacecraft with the, either the magnet or the, whatever you decided eventually you use is this for say high priority, problematic satellites. It’s not for general cleanup, right? This is something that you, it can be for both, but it’s going to depend on the customer.


Uh, we’re where you, you need to be looking for who the customers are. So. In terms of high priority cleanup. I guess if a commercial customer suddenly loses a bunch of satellites, if they’ve launched a dozen or more, and there was a persistent problem, a systemic problem with all of those and they’ve all failed.


Uh, if they had prepared themselves with the docking plate before, then we can more easily launch either on a. On a customer launch vehicle or depending on the maturity of the on-demand launch market, which is just starting try to find some launches there, go up and bring down those one or multiple of those.


Yeah. That’s so that’s the next question? How big are these by the way? So you’re talking, so are. Test missions are that’s about 160 to 170 kilograms for the, uh, for the servicing satellite and the, the, uh, client satellite is about 15 to 20 or so kilograms. That’s not too bad. Yeah. So total of about, about 200, a little less, probably for our test mission.


We’ll probably be bringing that down a bit more for our future missions. Of course, we’re not going to need the dummy client on there. So it’ll be, we’re looking at the 150 to 200 kilogram range and in the future. So these would be fairly, since they’re small, you could use something say like from a deployment mechanism, from other, not provided from another company to just get you on a particular launch vehicle.


Yeah. Either as well, either with a dedicated lunch with some of the, you know, a lot of the new. Uh, new companies. Some are even less than that, but most of them were about 150 up right. Range for capacity. So we could use a lot of the new, um, new launchers at rocket labs, electronic, even 50 or so, a little bit higher, depending on where you’re going.


Uh, you know, Virgin orbit, a lot of them are up on that, that range we could, we could work on that or, or do it as a. As a, as a, as a payloader, that piggyback tide chair, you have rideshare. So there’s, there’s different options we could do. I mean, obviously if the customer has a specific target that we need to go after, which they will, when we’re launching the dedicated launch, makes sense.


As we’re talking about the government missions, which are focused on the debris, that’s already up there, some of that’s a lot larger, so we may need to scale up our, our servicing satellite a bit more to account for more propulsive capability or. To be able to bring down that those larger upper stage, uh, rockets or defunct satellite.


So what are the challenges to something like this that you, that you can mention or talk about too? I mean, part of it is obviously the customer should hopefully be using some of the system, but what else is going? So there’s a lot and we break the challenges down into those three categories. Of focus areas that we’re looking at, uh, the technology challenges, the policy challenges, the business case challenges, and there are significant challenges in each of those.


Uh, but that’s why we’re building an experience dedicated team focus on all those. So from technology challenges, it’s, it’s a lot of what I just described. How are we going to make sure we are able to attach to. To a defunct. So how can we find it? How can we, uh, do the prox ops and the RPO, the rendezvous and prox ops to approach and find how can we attach to it?


Um, and then how can we bring it down? And when we bring it down from, uh, an altitude of, let’s say a thousand kilometers, we need to go through some. Crowded orbits 800 and 600 or so specifically are pretty crowded. So do we, can we just do that a lot without any propulsion or can we just kind of let it go down and we didn’t get a need to be able to have collision avoidance maneuvers.


We’re gonna need to be able to get around. Those orbits. So those are all challenges, technically that we’re working on from a policy challenge. How do we solidify the regulations, the standards, the best practices, and we’re involved in all those times for stations. There’s a group called confers, which I joined a meeting yesterday and talking about best practices for on orbit servicing.


And we’re active participants in that we’re meeting with governments and talking about a lot of these new regulations that are coming out primarily in Europe. Where we have an office in UK, us where we were, we’re having office, we’re going to have an office soon chips. Is that an announcement? Well, it depends on when this airs, I think it’ll already be, it’ll already be announced, but we’re here at the space and frozen.


We’re going to be making an announcement at the space symposium. Excellent. That we’re going to be now having a, an, an entity in the U S and we’ve decided to open that here in Colorado, in the Denver area. Uh, so we we’re gonna, we already have. Some a person working for us in Washington, DC is doing a great job, tracking the policy and BD our office that we’re opening here in the U S will be focused on broadening that capability, looking for, uh, expanding our supply chain, expanding our personnel.


Uh, looking for opportunities for both government and, uh, commercial missions in the U S uh, up until now, we’ve primarily focused on Japan and Europe for all of those things. Supply chain personnel, potential business. The U S is obviously. The market we need to look at as well. And there’s a, there’s a lot of interest here now.


So we’ll have this, this, uh, office in the U S and then we have in Japan. So we’re going to have this footprint in three of the, of the main areas of, of, uh, of technology development and interest. In solving this issue. And so from a policy perspective, we’re getting involved in all of these discussions.


And then for a business case perspective, we’re talking to governments about what kind of business we can do with them or talking to these commercial providers, primarily a lot of these large constellations that are going to be launching soon, talking to them about how we can provide a service for their future missions.


Sounds like you’ve had a lot of things going on, which is good. It is good. It’s challenging. It’s fun. So I think really we weave your time. It’s great that you, especially with the split in the meeting. Thank you. Thanks for talking. It’s fun to talk about this stuff. So, absolutely. So I’m going to just have to, I think, stop it here.


And so this will conclude this episode of the space foundation Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And of course, our website at on all of those outlets and more it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community, because at the Space Foundation, we will always have space for you.


Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Chris Blackerby, Astroscale Chief Operating Officer