New York Old satellites, burned-out rocket stages, the smallest pieces of scrap: more and more space debris is circling our planet. The US Department of Defense is tracking over 27,000 pieces of junk in Earth orbit, and those are just the bigger chunks. In addition, there are millions of pieces of scrap less than ten centimeters in size.
This is already a major problem for space travel: the astronauts on the International Space Station regularly have to flee to protected areas when a swarm of scrap parts comes too close to the ISS. And with every new satellite in orbit, the risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction increases as one collision follows one collision after another.
The US start-up Rogue Space now wants to tackle the problem: with intelligent robots that are supposed to analyze failed satellites and put space junk on a crash course. “We are a service company. We don’t sell our robots,” says founder Jeromy Grimmett in an interview with Handelsblatt. The start-up from New Hampshire already has its first prominent client.
Rogue Space was founded in 2020. The start-up develops and builds various robots that are to move autonomously in orbit. The small model is called “Laura” and is as big as a shoe box. It is designed to assess malfunctioning satellites and is equipped with numerous sensors, including spectral cameras, lidar and radar sensors.
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The largest model is called “Fred”, is two meters tall, with the solar panels extended even over 17 meters tall and weighs 305 kilograms. Fred is equipped with four robotic arms: one to grab the object of interest, three to examine it.
“Take a satellite that isn’t working properly,” explains Grimmett. “Laura can examine him visually. Fred can grab it and fix it.” For example, if a satellite’s solar panels are stuck, Fred could unfold them. And if the repair doesn’t work? “Then Fred can pull the satellite into a lower orbit where it burns up.” Since Fred can be refueled, the robot can also remain in orbit for a long time.
How realistic is the project?
But these plans are still purely theoretical. Rogue Space is not planning the practical test until 2023. In June, the first small robot is to be launched into orbit, in cooperation with the provider Exolaunch on a SpaceX rocket. The aim is to test the robot’s computer systems, which carry out real-time analyzes in space on the basis of Nvidia graphics chips. The small robot costs a six-figure sum and should be brought down within twelve months.
In October 2023, two larger robots – called “Orbots” by Rogue Space – are to be launched into space. “We are planning six to eight launches within 18 months,” says Grimmett. The start-up uses many “off-the-shelf” components in order to reduce costs, following the example of SpaceX.
Can you make money with it?
One thing is clear: So far there has been no market for removing space debris from space. “We are pioneers,” says founder Grimmett. He hopes that a commercial market will develop within five to seven years. “All players have yet to get used to the fact that old objects have to be taken out of orbit instead of just leaving them there.”
Many potential customers are still in the demonstration phase. But Rogue Space has already won an important customer: the US Space Force. The US space forces decided in favor of the start-up in several tenders. Overall, the US government has already transferred almost three million dollars to Rogue Space as part of its development funding – a vote of confidence for the young company, which currently employs 30 people. A Space Force demonstration order can quickly bring in $250,000, and even $1.7 million in a second phase.
“Because the issue of space debris represents a significant risk, it also offers business opportunities,” judges Forrester analyst Phil Brunkard. Promising solutions are to monitor satellites – and thus prevent them from becoming scrap. According to Brunkard, the insurance industry could boost the market, for example by offering cheaper premiums for space companies that tackle the problem of space debris.
Future commercial missions will cost millions, says founder Grimmett. According to estimates by the analysis company Research-And-Markets, the unused sales potential for the disposal of space debris was last at 2.9 billion dollars. “Should the states impose stricter rules for the disposal of space debris, the market could explode,” Grimmett hopes.
What are the investors saying?
Rogue Space’s backers include several venture capitalists, including New York-based Seldor Capital and Austin-based Regolith Ventures. “Rogue is poised to be a leader in the growing sector of space companies serving space,” said Seldor Founder Sidney Nakahodo. The founders convinced by putting together a “first-class team” and by having a “bold vision based on a solid business plan”.
Regolith’s James Africano praises Rogue Space’s “double approach”: the start-up is developing a strong commercial application, but is also partnering with the US Department of Defense to reduce the time to market for its products.
Who are the competitors?
Rogue Space’s competitors include startups Astroscale, Turion Space, and Starfish Space. The industry is currently still in its infancy – everyone knows each other. “We’re all breaking new ground, so we don’t have to compete yet,” says Grimmett – and at the same time emphasizes that Rogue Space sees itself as the “secret favorite” of the future market. You get 50 to 70 applications for a job posting, and many applicants come from much larger tech start-ups.
One of the partners is Morpheus Space, which is to provide the rocket propulsion system for future robots. Exolaunch from Berlin helps with the start.
After the last round of financing at the end of 2021, the company was valued at $17 million, according to data from the analysis house Pitchbook. In the meantime, this is well above the double-digit million range. “In three years we are aiming for a billion dollar valuation”, says Grimmett ambitiously.
Rogue Space wants to generate returns for investors as quickly as possible: “If we play our cards right, we could perhaps be profitable by early 2024.” An IPO could then follow in four to five years, says the founder. As ambitious as his plans are – now the robots have to prove that they can really clean up in space.
Every week, the Handelsblatt presents young companies that managers, entrepreneurs and those interested in business should now take a look at. The focus is on the innovation potential, which investors also pay particular attention to. The business models and ideas could also provide new impetus for products and solutions in other sectors.
More: You can find all episodes of the start-up check here