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| 1 minute read

Cleaning up space – An emerging market for innovation

In the late 1950s, scientists looked up and saw only empty skies.  The launching of a satellite – any satellite – into space was still an immense technological challenge.  In the 60 years since this challenge was met by the launches of Sputnik and Explorer I, an opposite problem has emerged: space is getting too busy.

In 2022, there are hundreds of thousands of objects in Earth's orbit.  These range in size from the tiny micrometeorites to large discarded rocket stages, and each represents a mission-ending risk to modern space explorers.  What is worse is that these objects can collide, creating even more debris and even more risk – if nothing is done, the problem can only get worse.

I was therefore excited to read about this Orbital Prime Initiative from the US Space Force, which will award companies money to develop technologies to address space debris.  This follows on the heels of similar initiatives in Europe – for example, the European Space Agency’s Clean Space Initiative and ADRIOS project (Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit servicing) has seen the award of a contract to ClearSpace to undertake a space debris removal mission.

What particularly interests me about these projects is the involvement of private companies to develop and deploy the necessary technologies.  This follows the continuing trend of the space industry to move away from state-run organisations and toward new generations of start-ups. 

However, as more companies enter the market, competition in innovation will no doubt be fierce and undertakings will be seeking ways to protect their inventions as the sector expands.  We are already seeing evidence of this growth in the filing of European patent applications – in their recent 2021 Cosmonautics insights, the European Patent Office reported on the significant increase in the number of patent applications filed toward space debris solutions.  Similar growth has been seen in patent filings toward adjacent technical areas such as satellite design, automation and robotics. 

New players in the market would therefore be wise to consider carefully any exposure to established entities, as well as think about protecting their own intellectual property.  If you would like to know more about patents or the patent application process, our experts at Marks & Clerk will be able to answer your questions.

Pieces of debris have cracked a window on the International Space Station. Last year, a micrometeorite shot right through the station’s robotic arm, leaving a bullet-size hole. The Defense Department does not want that to happen to one of the satellites it uses for missile defense, or spying, or guiding precision munitions with GPS. Recently, it has launched a program, called Orbital Prime, under the U.S. Space Force that will give companies seed money to develop the technology needed to clean up space. In the first round of the program, companies can win awards of $250,000, with as much as $1.5 million in a second round of funding. The program will culminate with a test demonstration in orbit.