In a video posted on January 5, Gen. David Thompson, who is the Vice Chief in charge of the Space Operations called on the commercial sector to assist clean up the space junk. “We need your support,” Thompson said in a video released by SpaceWERX, the Space Force’s technological arm. Orbital Prime is a program conducted by SpaceWERX that seeks proposals from private companies and academic institutions for technology that could be utilized to combat the rising problem of space debris.
Proposals for Orbital Prime’s first phase are due February 17. “Through Orbital Prime, our goal is to collaborate with creative minds in the industry, academia, and research institutions to create and implement cutting-edge technology and operational ideas in the fields of debris mitigation and removal,” Thompson added.
In less than three years, the long-term goal is to execute an in-space demo of the debris removal technologies. The STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) program is funding the initiative. Companies must collaborate with academic or charitable organizations. Larger firms can participate, but only as subcontractors for a small firm.
Phase 2 awards of about $1.5 million while Phase 1 awards of about $250,000 are available to teams. The government will cover a portion of the cost if any are chosen for an in-space demonstration. The Space Force wants these technologies to work so it can purchase debris-removal capabilities from the commercial sector, according to Thompson. “In this cooperation, our objective is to aggressively investigate those capabilities today in the hopes that we and others may be able to buy them as a utility in the future,” he said.
Because these objects can crash with space stations or satellites inhabited by humans, the growth of space debris is becoming a growing challenge for the commercial space sector and governments. Currently, the Space Force monitors about 40,000 items in space, with only around 5,000 of them being active satellites. According to Thompson, the roughly 35,000 debris items monitored are around the size of the fist or even larger. “There are a minimum of ten times as many smaller items in orbit which we can properly track,” according to cautious estimates. Despite this, the tiny pieces of debris are just as dangerous to our spacecraft as the larger ones.”
According to Thompson, this congestion jeopardizes the space domain’s long-term viability. “It calls for action and offers a chance for collaboration in the search for inventive ways to recycle, reuse, or remove these artifacts.”