An invention by Australian space engineering start-up Saber Astronautics that aims to reduce “space junk” by dragging failed equipment from orbit has been chosen by NASA to be part of its 2013 low gravity test flights.
The device is designed to minimise old and abandoned technology that would otherwise float around in space and potentially damage working technology.
“Space junk is a big problem. It can be really small but it’s going very quickly. If a piece of equipment dies out in orbit, it needs to be removed,” says Saber Astronautics director Dr Jason Held, who describes the device called DragEN as looking like a metal yoyo.
The tether-based technology is attached to the bottom of space technology such as satellites. Once deployed it drags the machinery back towards earth and is incinerated in the atmosphere.
Held says the space industry is opening up to start-ups and Australia is well positioned to play a key and growing role.
“There has been a lot of growth in this industry in the last 10 years, and in Australia. The whole attitude that space is only for governments is very easily broken,” he tells StartupSmart.
“We’re in a really good position geographically, and cultural and politically, that if we wanted to have a really good go at business in space, we could do that without serious government intervention.”
Held will be locking in the date the device joins NASA’s test flights this week. The company has already sold one device.
“We’re starting to sell them and the plan for us is to ramp up our marketing. The data we will get from NASA will build confidence with our market and we do expect more sales after the flight,” Held says.
Held’s team of four are focusing on small satellites at this stage, which are becoming increasingly accessible and sought after by educational markets who sell images and direct access to schools and parents of budding space engineers.
“The market is growing but it’s very early days. We’re talking about 20 to 40 satellites per year. These were mainly for academia before but they’re becoming industrialised. A lot of companies are starting up and can launch a satellite for $100,000, less than the cost of a juice bar,” Held says.
He says the technology and business conditions in Australia are perfect for space-focused start-ups.
“There is a lot of untapped technical ability here, and a lot of interest that is untapped commercially. Conditions have changed in the industry to allow more start-ups. We’re seeing Kickstarter campaigns and everything.”