Luca Rossettini is the CEO of D-Sat, which launched the first self-deorbiting satellite on June 28 for a test of Deorbital Devices’ product offerings, a system that can safely remove decommissioned satellites from orbit. The mission will demonstrate an independent retro-rocket system that is capable of deorbiting a satellite that has outlived its useful life and could become dangerous to both functional satellites and crewed space missions. My Youtube channel, Mars Interviews, caught up with him for an interview about D-Sat’s mission and the importance of cleaning up space debris. If interested in learning more about D-Sat, feel free to visit D-Sat’s official website and its companion site, Deorbital Devices.
HH: We’re here today with Luca Rossettini with D-Sat. How are you doing today?
Rossettini: Fine thank you, very well.
HH: What is D-Sat’s mission?
Rossettini: So D-Sat is not just a regular CubeSat. It is a small satellite. It’s a very reliable satellite that we are going to launch in few weeks and that will be the first satellite ever removed from space via controlled system. It’s a demonstration on how it’s possible to remove satellites from space without impacting, say, the cost for satellite operators and helping new space sector to understand that space is a resource for human beings.
HH: Why is it important to clean up space junk?
Rossettini: Yes, this is a very good question. Actually the space junk issue was stated for the first time during the 70’s, when we had only very few satellites in space. A NASA scientist named Kessler started studying what could happen if we keep sending in space satellites without taking care of them and without properly dispose them at the end of life. He ended up with a simulation that actually was quite scary, but at that time in the 70’s, with very few satellites in space, no one was really concerned.
I remember that in 2010, almost 40 years later, I was working at NASA in California and I was talking with a colleague of mine about space debris, space junk. And he told me, “Luca, you don’t have to worry. We all know space debris, but you don’t have to worry,” because space is big. And I suddenly understood that actually we need to do something because the main institution worldwide in Europe, in US and then the companies are just focusing on making money out of satellites without thinking of the future of the space business. That was the right moment to find the spot, find the solution and help whole industries to do something about it.
So I founded the company for the purpose of developing the first decommissioning system able to remove the satellite. And actually this is the system that is installed on the D-Sat mission. What if we don’t remove satellites from space, what could happen?
So according to several simulations, so now we don’t have only the Kessler simulation. The debris problem is named Kessler Syndrome. We have many different scientists that actually are running simulations on a weekly basis, and the situation is quite dramatic. So imagine these objects fly in space at, like. 200,000 miles per hour, so even a small piece of satellite the size of a pin can destroy a satellite, so they are very dangerous. And when two satellites collide they generate fragments, and these fragments can go around space and hit other satellite generating more and more fragments.
It’s a bit like in the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, so the scenario is very similar. So the catastrophic scenario is the complete destruction of all the satellites around the Earth, and also the situation will be so dramatic that we could not send more satellites in the near future for decades. So this is a big problem for all the companies and entities and the research entities that are willing to send experiments and satellites in space.
But it’s actually even a worse problem for us here on Earth. Space looks like a science-fiction theme, but actually space is here. So 70% of the technology that we use day by day comes indirectly from space. So today emerging countries are able to grow faster because of satellite technology. Imagine how much time and how much money it would take to create a grand infrastructure in the center of Africa or in the Asia-Pacific. So it would be very expensive and very difficult. They use satellite technology in their day-by-day life, even to pay for their food.
Today, thanks to satellites, we can have better food at lower cost, even in areas in which it is very difficult to grow food. We can find water under the deserts, we can monitor natural disasters and help to prevent death. So space is a very important resource and very few on earth are aware of the benefits that we are receiving from space. So losing satellites is not just losing the space asset, it’s not just damage for the big corporations that are making billions out of space, it’s a problem for all of us. So our idea with this mission is to send a message that it’s possible to do something about, it is possible to prevent these catastrophic scenarios, and it’s possible to continue doing business in space in a more sustainable way, disposing properly each satellite at the end of life.
HH: So what will the capabilities of your CubeSat be, and what can you tell me about the experiments you’ll be including?
Rossettini: Yes. So we are not alone on this satellite although we manufacture the satellite on our own in-house. We include two important experiments on the satellite so I will start from the experiment and then I will explain to you how the satellite works.
So the first experiment is an emergency protocol signal that we are going to test. So basically in the case of natural disasters on Earth, like the cell phone lines are not working, so thanks to this protocol you could warn populations affected by this. Let’s say these areas impacted by the natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes, you can reach them and send them instructions, so like place where to find food or where to find shelters and so on.
So we are going to test this protocol for the first time. It’s likely that if the test is successful, this entity, called CNIT, is going to apply this protocol to the new satellites called Galileo. It is very similar to the GPS satellites that the US have in space. It would be the European GPS satellites and will provide this service to everybody around the world.
The second experiment actually comes from a private company. This private company developed a system that is able to send a warning signal to airplanes when an object re-enter from space. And even if it looks kind of like a weird task, one object per day re-enter into the atmosphere from space and there are several tons of material every week that re-enter into the atmosphere so the airplanes are really in a dangerous situation if they don’t know where the objects are going to come back. So currently the technique that is used is to send a warning for a very large area. However, it’s very difficult to stop all the flights in such a huge area, because stopping all the flights will have a huge economic impact. So this system allows to send signals directly to the airplane in the proximity of this area in such a way that they can avoid the area and save fuel. So this is what we are going to test when we are going to re-enter.
And the third experiment is actually is our decommission system. It’s an intelligent motor that we have installed on the satellite. It’s completely independent from the satellite, so even if the satellite is not working this decommissioning motor is able to function properly. And at the end of this mission, after about four weeks in space, we will send a command to this intelligent motor and the intelligent motor will provide the thrust necessary to slow down the satellite and put it in a re-entry trajectory that we decide in order to make sure that the satellite is going to end in a very defined area on earth.
Since the satellite is small it will burn up completely during the passage through the atmosphere. However, if anything would survive this re-entry it will land exactly where we decide it should land. The satellite is very similar to what you find in large satellites, so we work a lot in research and development to create inside the small satellite the same reliability architecture that you can find in big satellites. So D-Sat, it’s a zero single point of failure. This is the technical terminology that we use. It means there is a fail-safe so, whatever happened to the satellite, it’s completely redundant and we can still use the satellite. So it’s very good in terms of reliability as I said. And the very same technology that we use inside this could be used in the future also for others small satellites that will be launched in the space market as well.
HH: Awesome. So where did the idea come from to create the first self decommissioning satellite?
Rossettini: This is a good question. Let’s say that my goal as a founder of the company was always been to go to space, so I planned all my life to be able to become an astronaut here in Europe. And so I studied a lot; too much. I have a PhD in Space Propulsion, a Masters in Space Engineering, a Masters in Robotics in Software. I have a Masters in Strategic Sustainability and also a certificate in Business, so a lot of studies just to gain enough points for the astronaut contest.
So I went through the European astronaut contest, but at the very last selection there were only four places, four seats among 10,000 applicants. I was discarded basically because of my psychological profile. It was the very last test. So I’m too crazy to become an astronaut so I say, “Okay, so if I’m really crazy I will be able to build my own spaceship and go to space on my own.”
I have studied a lot, I have a lot of expertise, so why not, let’s say, get back some benefits from all these studies? So I decide okay, but it will take a little bit longer. If you become an astronaut you can go immediately into space. But if you are not an astronaut it can take a few years. And then the space debris problem appears to my eye and I said “Okay, but if no one is going to solve the problem of space debris, no one is going to space, let alone me,” so that’s actually an issue for me.
So I said, “Okay, we need to solve the problem of space debris first.” and then studying the problem, I realized, “Okay, but we cannot just solve a problem here.”
Because if you solve a problem, it’s basically reducing the impact of space debris, but if you reduce space debris you are not really getting rid of them. We need to think in terms of a scenario in which space debris are not there anymore, we need to change the way you think about it. I said, “Okay, so how can we create something that allow us to put the world space sector into a scenario in which debris are not there?”
So I elaborate this like very easy and very logical three steps. The first one is to make sure that whatever we launch in space can be removed 100% of the time in a safe way, without damaging other satellites, without damaging anyone on Earth. The second step would be to go and retrieve the junk that is already in space. ]
And the third step is to start recycling directly in orbit all the raw material that we have to produce new material to be used directly in space for building new satellites and spaceships directly in space. So of course some of these steps look like science fiction, but you know that science fiction is the science of tomorrow so we can start from today. And I focus on the first step. I realize this intelligent model, so this intelligent model that you can install on satellite is able to remove satellites even if the satellites are not working.
So when I said 100% of the time this number is very important. Today according to regulations only 90% of satellite are allowed to be removed, so if you reach 90% the governments and the like the institutions are happy. However, today the average, it’s about 50% of satellites being successful on the disposal manual. So we are very far from 90%, and even if you apply the 90% rules you still have an increase as low increase of the junk in space, so you are not really solving the issue.
With my system it doesn’t matter if the satellite is going to be alive or not at the end of its life. My system will be alive and we’ll remove the satellite at the end of life. So the reliability of my system is 99.997% so it’s not 100% of course because 100% can’t exist, but it’s very, very close to 100%.
So this is the story on how I created the device and why the device is so important, because once the debris are gone then everybody for a much cheaper price can go to space. Imagine the increased cost that spaceship could have if they have to increase the protection for hosting people on board. Now we hear that Elon Musk want to bring people around the moon, there’s Richard Branson with bringing people into sub-orbital space, and Bigelow Aerospace, they want to build warehouses in space, like hotels in space. Imagine how much cheaper it could be if they could avoid completely the problem of space debris, so this is a very important aspect.
So this is why I decided to focus first on that, but keep in mind that the technology that we find on our decommissioning system is actually a technological platform that could be used in the future to go ahead on these three steps that I mentioned before. But at the moment we need to start from the step one and then we will move to step two and eventually step three.
HH: Awesome. So I understand you’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for this mission.
Rossettini: Yes. Actually we are not really running the campaign to raise funds in the meaning that we already invested in the in the world mission, so the mission is already paid. We thought that it was very important to share the message. What we are doing with that debris is preventing the satellite infrastructure to be created in the space for the future, not only for space but also for the whole humankind. Natural disasters could be prevented. Like food, water, they are probably the most important problems that we have on earth, could be addressed by using space in a proper way.
So we thought it was important to make people understand that today we have a solution that could immediately be adopted by all the satellites that are going to be launched. So the idea was to say okay, if just put a post on Facebook there will be probably, I don’t know, like thousands of people that will read the post, but five minutes later it will be gone because you know, Facebook is very, very quick. If we write an article in a newspaper even that, like probably millions of people will be read it but still it will last one day. So why not put all together all the communication strategies and also using a crowdfunding campaign?
So with the crowdfunding campaign, we are really focusing on the crowd part of the crowdfunding. So if one person put one dollar in the campaign for sure he will follow the world mission up to the end, he will become part of our team, he will become a sort of sponsor who will tell about other people, friends about the mission, about the problem of space debris. And when everybody will be aware of the problems, there will be not only our company thinking about solutions. There will be other companies finding maybe even better solution than what we are proposing and working on the field and helping the satellite operators to find the best solution possible.
So this is our missions, we believe that the crowdfunding campaign could be a good instrument, together with many other communication tools, to promote this message. On top of that whatever we are able to raise, we will use to keep the experiments that we have going so to further develop the technology that can help like the disaster monitoring. So it’s not compulsory, we don’t really plan to reach the threshold or to make money out of it, because our mission alone cost about a million, actually a little bit more in dollars. So this is a very negligible amount. But still whatever we are able to raise we will make good use of that.
HH: Well that’s all the questions I have. Anything you’d like to add?
Rossettini: Let’s say I would like to stress the fact that space is important, not just because of the orbital work in the space domain, but because in the future we will see say a great use of this new natural resource. In the last decade we sent into space 800 satellites and in the next decades we are going to send 23,000 new satellites, so a huge amount of satellites. and if we don’t start doing business in space in a more sustainable way the risk is that everybody will suffer from that, not only the space business, but also the Earth business.
The last comment is, it’s not related to space, it’s a general point. Most people think that becoming sustainable means spending money, that decreasing the pollution or avoiding the emissions of toxic gases in the atmosphere it’s costly and it’s actually cutting away the competitive advantages of the company, and I strongly believe that this is wrong. Actually if one company, one private person plans in advance his actions towards sustainability it will have competitive advantages on that.
So when we design our system, not only this, not only the decommissioning system, but all the products that we design, we take into consideration what will happen in the future, what will be, are we going to create problems in the future? If the answer is no, then we realize it. There are some materials that we know that in the future could create some issues and probably they will be abandoned, they will be banned by regulations. You cannot use it anymore. So if I plan in advance to become sustainable in these terms I will not face any issue, I will keep selling my products and actually I will gain market share.
The companies that are sticking to the old business they will face a situation where sooner or later someone will knock at their door and say “You cannot do this anymore.” We know from the history it happens several times. And for those companies, it’s likely that they will go bankrupt or they will have to spend money to fix all the technology, the products and the plants that they already have. So this is just an example, today it’s really possible to take advantage of a good way of becoming sustainable in business, not spending money but saving money. And this is a great competitive advantage in every type of business, not only in space.
HH: Awesome. Well thanks for joining us today.
Rossettini: Thank you very much. My pleasure.