XPRIZE Orbital Debris Cleanup

There are 500M pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger, and approximately 100M pieces about .04 inches. Despite promising technology demonstrations, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the growing problem. A competition could seek to remove x amount of orbital debris and/or prevent orbital debris. As current fuel expenditures for debris avoidance maneuvers are increasing, innovative insurance models to clean up space debris could be of value.

Solutions may include: autonomous capability, collection of uncooperative (tumbling, high-velocity) debris, capture and reclamation of specified materials, or creation of a salvage depot in space.

We would like to learn from you:

  • Is this an audacious prize competition?
  • What are the innovation gaps in this area?
  • What would the winning team need to do?
  • What would be audacious but achievable targets?
  • What is the expected impact of this prize?

Hi @akb, @manuel.ntumba and @wanyok - We would love to know your views on this prize idea. Do you think it is an audacious enough competition? if so, what could be the expected impact of this prize?

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Hi @Shashi
This has significant potential benefits and the scope is wide enough for an audacious proposal to win the prize. Some questions that might be relevant are: what is the total mass of debris; what will be done with it when it has been collected; how long will the device last; how much will it cost to deploy and operate; will the debris be reused in space, or sent elsewhere; and how much mass can it collect?

Thinking of innovative potential extras: a device that uses the collected mass to grow in size and ability; and can it be self-sustaining (e.g. energy wise). Is there enough debris to build something useful, in space, from the recycled material?


Yes! I’ve been thinking a lot about this and am wondering if we can somehow make use of materials captured in space.

Could it be a designated collection spot? What could that look like? Would we just be creating a mess for ourselves to clean up later?

It’s clear that we need to do something about orbital debris, but the current tech for single catch and de-orbit seems like it might not work for the long term goal of making a safer space for satellites and travel.


Hi @akb, @Anders_Lyngfelt and @mbanu - Would love to hear your thoughts on @LBakerLyon’s comment.

If we were to do something constructive, in space, with the collected mass then this might make the challenge worthwhile.

I worry that current attempts to address the issue simply direct material down towards Earth - which presents its own problems as it scales up (e.g. risks of collisions in orbits below and, for large objects, a risk of hitting things on Earth).

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Hi @Mlhanlon and @toshi - In your views, what are the innovation gaps in orbital debris space? If XPRIZE decides to have a competition in this area, what should the winning team demonstrate?

Yes, I agree about deorbiting! What do you think about the idea of repeatable demonstrated capture? Or, if not capture, the ability to autonomously change the velocity of a targeted piece of debris? Which would you prioritize?

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Capture is worthwhile, the key step is what we then do with it. If we can safely do something useful with it then that’s great.

Changing the velocity… slowing an object so that it falls to Earth has the risks we mentioned. Accelerating an object away from Earth presents problems too. Care would be needed to avoid objects in higher orbits (e.g. geostationary satellites, a growing array of space infrastructure, and rockets on dynamic trajectories).

So the safer, useful, option might be to capture and recycle the resource (in space construction). That’s more challenging, but within the scope of an XPRIZE :slight_smile:

There’s also the option of capture to repair (e.g. broken satellites and space telescopes). On this front I’ve proposed a more proactive strategy, using space platforms with managed services - in Space Future Gallery.

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We’re wordsmithing what we call the “winning-team-will statement” for this prize: a succinct description of what a competing team would need to do to win.

Here’s the current version, and I’d appreciate your thoughts:
Deorbit most items, ≥1cm in diameter, from low-Earth Orbit within 6 months.
Most-cost effectively, with the highest safety and scalability scores.

The next step are drafting the testing and judging criteria for the prize. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Capture and remove 5 objects less than 1 kg in size from Low Earth Orbit.
  • Change the velocity of 5 debris objects in Low Earth Orbit.
  • Demonstrate rapid collision risk mitigation.
  • At lowest cost,
    • Cost of launch to orbit no more than $X (tbd)
    • Maintenance, O&M no more than $X (tbd)
    • Allow Earth’s surface-based solutions.
  • Autonomous / minimal human intervention in O&M
  • Scalable; demonstrate a growing number of items collected between competition phases.
  • Business model and end-of-life plans to maximize reuse, recycling, upcycling of orbital debris; incentivizing market demand.
  • Repeatable performance vs. time to perform?
  • Bonus: cost-effective debris identification to improve collection and categorization.
  • Scaling Impact activity: Design a regulatory framework to have companies who owned the debris to pay for the cleanup.

@akb, @Mlhanlon, @toshi, @DrAaronTDossey - We would love to hear your feedback on the wining team will statement and testing and judging criteria.


As the answer to the five questions: Is this an audacious prize competition? What are the innovation gaps in this area? What would the winning team need to do? And, what would be audacious but achievable targets? What is the expected impact of this prize?

This competition and the prize winner criteria can be defined based on the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’s (UNCOPUOS) seven (7) Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities published in 2019:

Guideline 1: Limit debris released during normal operations
Guideline 2: Minimize the potential for break-ups during operational phases
Guideline 3: Limit the probability of accidental collision in orbit
Guideline 4: Avoid intentional destruction and other harmful activities
Guideline 5: Minimize the potential for post-mission break-ups resulting from stored energy
Guideline 6: Limit the long-term presence of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages in the low-Earth orbit (LEO) region after the end of their mission
Guideline 7: Limit the long-term interference of spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages with the geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) region after the end of their mission

@Shashi @LBakerLyon @akb

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Thanks @manuel.ntumba for sharing these Insights. We would love to have your feedback on the prize parameters as well. In case you have any inputs to share on the cost factors i.e $X(tbd) it would be great.

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Feedback on the winning team will statement and testing and judging criteria:

In reference to Analyzing Costs of Space Debris Removal in Basis of Three Kinds of Methods, we have three cost estimations:

  1. According to the calculation, using 4 ps level laser devices, the medium-sized space debris could be removed. Every laser device could work for around 7 months and cost 1.5 million us dollars. With 4 devices works 40 times every day, it costs 210 thousand dollars per day to operate. Thus, it costs about 87.89 million dollars per year to operate the laser removal method.
  2. According to the calculation, using High Pressure Water Jet spacecraft, every flight per year of the water jet spacecraft could remove both the increasing debris and the existing 750 pieces. The cost of every year is around 300 million dollars.
  3. According to the calculation, using the Space Net-Capture Method, the cost for launching every satellite is estimated at 4.9 million dollars, and building every removing satellite is estimated at 140 thousand dollars. The satellite’s launching and building cost, every removal cost is about 5.04 million dollars. Since the net-capture method is a kind of suicide removal and every satellite could only bring one space debris, when using the net-capture method, no matter what size the debris is, the cost stays at 5.04 million dollars. Therefore the net-capture method doesn’t stand out when removing the medium-sized and small-sized debris. It would cost too much only to use the net-capture method.

@Shashi @LBakerLyon

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Thanks @manuel.ntumba for sharing insights on cost. We have taken a note of it and will analyze internally to get best possible prize parameters so that the competition is audacious enough, but achievable.

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You’re welcome, @Shashi

Thanks for pointing us to this paper! It has some great numbers to compare for technology costs. Part of the judging criteria will assuredly be cost and I agree with you about the net idea. I’m curious to see what organizations in the future could do toward multiple-object removal!

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You’re welcome @LBakerLyon

Hi @jguo.space, @pmetzger, @SpacePlaceCanada - We would love to have your feedback on the draft prize metrics of this competition on orbital debris.

Hi @derleth, @Rahul, @Sergio123Cabral and @RobertB - Given your background and experience, you might have feedback to share on the listed wining-team-will statement and the testing and judging criteria of this competition on orbital debris cleanup. Please advise.

five seems to be too few, but also too many. Debris removal is HARD, so five is presumably meant to show repeatability of the difficult thing. But there are too many small pieces of debris. Glad that the “scalability” is in there, since it will need to be scalable.

I’m basically worried that this is both a) too hard to achieve results, and b) not hard enough to make a difference. That’s not a good place to be.

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