A Chat with a Champion for Cleaning Orbit: Luc Riesbeck
By Cody Knipfer & Luc Riesbeck
Satellites enable our modern, hyper-connected lives. Data from space systems feed into a swath of essential services that people all over the world depend on daily – cellular networks, broadband internet, climate science and agriculture, freight logistics and tracking, weather data, emergency and natural disaster relief, and countless others. Together, these on-orbit services and data form an unseen yet critical backbone of today’s global economy.
At the same time, space operators are facing the boiling point of a long-standing predicament. Once in orbit, there has been no way to repair, refuel, reposition, or safely remove satellites away from danger—and as a result, orbital highways are becoming congested with defunct satellites and other fragments of dangerous space debris. But unlike litter on the sidewalk, debris in space moves at orbital velocity—so even tiny fragments, like the one that recently hit the space station, can completely disable a spacecraft upon impact. If left unchecked, this debris population will produce further collisions and have a cascading negative effect on the space environment. This of course would be hugely detrimental to the elements of life on the ground that depend on satellites. What’s more, this steadily growing debris population is already increasing the risks and costs of operating safely in space, jeopardizing the future of the commercial space industry.
As the range of operations and missions in Earth’s orbit diversified over the past two decades, space organizations of all kinds across the world are recognizing the urgency of space environmental management and sustainability. One such organization is Astroscale, an on-orbit services company headquartered in Tokyo, Japan and dedicated to developing innovative technologies, advance business cases, and inform international policies that reduce orbital debris and support the sustainable long-term use of space.
Astroscale’s team is distributed across several regions, with their U.S. subsidiary headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and includes SGAC alumni Luc Riesbeck (they/he), a Space Policy research analyst for Astroscale U.S. based in Washington D.C.
Luc received a Master’s degree through the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute program in 2020, after completing his B.A. from New York University Shanghai in 2018 in Social Sciences with a minor in Global China Studies. Their graduate research, which they presented at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress (IAC), focused on commercial space and space sustainability issues, including solutions for active debris removal, on-orbit satellite servicing, and other applications for advanced robotics for rendezvous and proximity operations in space.
Luc is no stranger to the space community, having held several apprenticeship positions at organizations like Space Capital, NASA Headquarters, the Secure World Foundation, BryceTech, and the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy.
Luc has graciously offered their time to provide us their perspectives on Astroscale, orbital debris, and the future of space sustainability.
Thank you so much for your time, and for the opportunity to learn more about you, your fascinating work, and the important mission of which you’re a part!
To begin, could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
[ ] I discovered space policy through a NASA internship opportunity as an undergraduate, at the Jackson Headquarters’ Office of International and Interagency Relations. My major in undergrad blended humanities and hard sciences research, but I hadn’t set out to work in space at all—I figured I would remain in academia, likely in sociology. But the internship at OIIR was a fantastic crash course in science and technology policy— in particular, the international cooperation, diplomacy, and strategic elements that compose space policy work. Space turned out to be the perfect cross-section of my interests in international relations, science, and technology, so I started looking into space agencies and programs more seriously, particularly their role in spurring technological development for sustainability and environmental sciences. GWU’s Space Policy Institute was where my space research, work experience, and network really took off—in part because I joined the very welcoming member base of SGAC.
I was also lucky enough to be a part of the Brooke Owens Fellowship in 2018, an undergraduate fellowship for women and other gender minorities seeking space and aviation-related careers to gain mentorship, connections to other alumni, and summer internship placements at top aerospace companies. I’m very grateful to that program and the alumni network, who I’m proud to call peers and look up to as inspiration.
You’ve had quite a history with the Space Generation Advisory Council! Have your experiences with SGAC helped shape the path to where you are today?
Without a doubt. It was actually through SGAC resources, events, and members that I was able to better understand where I wanted to focus my graduate research and my career. SGAC events like SGx, the Space Generation Congress, and Fusion Forum have been second to none in terms of meeting and brainstorming opportunities to collaborate with peers from different regions on approaches to space policy issues—like space sustainability and orbital services— that are core to the success of the space economy.
You’re a Space Policy Research Analyst for Astroscale, an active orbital debris removal company – that’s about as “space-y” a job title as possible! Tell us more about what Astroscale does, and about your role within the company?
Broadly, Astroscale’s mission is the development of a safe and sustainable space domain. That’s a big goal, so to tackle it, we work from a combined technology, business, and policy angle to make that happen. Our CEO, Nobu Okada, founded the company back in 2013, starting with an emphasis on active debris removal (also known as ADR) technologies, because they’re so fundamental to tackling the challenge of space debris. Since then, Astroscale has expanded, and the company now houses a whole suite of other on-orbit services to help space operators be responsible stewards of space.
I work on the policy side of the equation, in Washington, D.C. A big part of what we’re looking at in the U.S. is helping spacecraft operators—commercial and in government– to be more efficient and safe in how they design, plan, and conduct their missions. On-orbit services (OOS, for short) refers to a lot of different mission sets, but what we at Astroscale are focusing on includes services like extending the lives of existing satellites, orbital transfers to repurpose satellites into new orbits and inclinations, in-situ inspection, active debris removal, and prepared end-of-life disposal services for large constellations of many thousands of satellites. This is really exciting for me, from a policy perspective, because we are addressing both the “prevention” and the “cure” side of space sustainability.
My work is focused on fostering the policy and regulatory environment that is needed to enable sustainable operations in space. I work to educate and inform legislators, regulators, and other commercial space operators on what they can do to be more responsible stewards of the orbital environment.
The issue of orbital debris is often associated with the notion of outer space sustainability. What does the phrase “space sustainability” mean to you?
Simply put, if we continue on our current path of such rapid growth without clearer guidelines on behavior, the risk of orbital collisions will just keep getting worse. Eventually, the density of debris population will render certain orbital regimes unusable. Even if we somehow halted all launches today, and never launched anything into orbit again, the debris population would still get worse—of course, that’s if we do nothing.
So when I think of what space sustainability means in practice, I try to envision what an ideal state of Earth orbit would be—what would provide the maximum benefit to the most people, for the longest amount of time possible–and then work backwards from there. This includes mitigating debris, yes, but also re-thinking how we even design and build spacecraft in the first place. How can we be smarter about our investments in orbit? Larger systems like geostationary satellites can cost in the range of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars and have an expected lifetime of about a dozen or so years of service, after which they are abandoned in a faraway “graveyard” orbit. Imagine treating yourself to a brand-new dream car, with all the features you’d ever wanted. Now imagine driving that car off the lot for the first time… and after going to all that trouble and expense, abandoning it when its first tank of fuel has run out. For satellite operators, this has been common practice ever since humanity first began launching spacecraft, and it remains the status quo. This “throwaway” culture in space is what Astroscale is working with governments, commercial space operators, and academia to try to move away from. Even closer to the Earth, in low Earth orbit, satellites are more plentiful, smaller, and becoming less expensive to produce—but the tradeoff is that they have significantly shorter lifetimes, requiring a near-constant cycle of refreshing the orbital shells, so those orbits are much more crowded. Sustainability in space has to include the full life cycle of missions, and part of that is what our services and policy work are addressing.
What do you see as the biggest challenges today facing the field of active debris removal? What are, in your opinion, the most promising opportunities?
From a technical perspective, active debris removal and the other services that will help to mitigate the debris population are already mature. So it’s not a question of the technological capability—it’s now a question of laying the foundation on the legal and policy side for these new services— this new segment of the market, really— to become a normal part of daily operations, just like anything else. Space operators have never had the option of calling a tow truck or a mechanic in space—now they do. But illustrating the value of that requires changing that throwaway culture.
One thing I’ve noticed when discussing debris removal, and other elements of space sustainability, is that it can be difficult for people to visualize the actual physical environment of space itself as just that, an environment—in the same way they might imagine a forest, or the ocean, for example. Maybe it’s because space itself is such a harsh environment to humans, or perhaps it’s difficult to mentally conceptualize boundaries around the certain areas of space that we use most often for operations that’s the issue. Whatever it is, I’ve found that some of the same sustainability concepts people can readily picture as they relate to ecosystems and industry on Earth can at times seem less concrete when applied to space. But it’s just as important.
I think some of the recent ‘close calls’ of high-risk conjunctions have helped people realize that cleaning up the space environment is something that actually has long-lasting benefits, that it’s just not enough to keep crossing our fingers and hoping we get lucky. So showing the community that sustainable design and practices actually saves money, and keeps everyone safer in the long term, has been helpful to address that challenge of visualizing the problem.
What is your prognosis for the next 5-10 years of active debris removal and orbital debris mitigation? What is the ideal for the next 10 – 20 years?
The good news is that that momentum to address debris is definitely building. Several space agencies such as ESA and JAXA have already announced ADR missions in collaboration with industry, and at Astroscale we have an end-of-life demonstration in orbit that just launched in March, for example, called ELSA-d, which will prove out some never done before, like rendezvous with a tumbling object. And even beyond the direct services on orbit like what we provide, there have been huge improvements on the ground in areas like space situational awareness and orbital environmental modelling in the past few years. Those leaps forward are giving us a clearer picture of the operating environment we’re working with, which feeds into a positive feedback loop of strategies to decrease risk.
Space nations need to establish their own approaches first, then come together and make clear commitments to each other, both in terms of what they will do to be more sustainable and what they’ll expect from the commercial operators under their supervision. Eventually, we will need a detailed “Paris Climate Accords” for space, but individual nations should be taking action well before starting that level of conversation. My hope is that there will be enough regional activity in the next five years to jumpstart a convening of those kinds of dialogues.
Your role is at a nexus between policy and business, and Astroscale is an international company. Have you gained any interesting perspectives and insights about the global space sector, working across its multiple fields and communities?
The global nature of the policy questions surrounding space sustainability have actually been one of my favorite parts of working in this field. Because some disciplines in the space industry (and in STEM in general) are so technical, it’s easy to silo yourself into specific methods and rigid ways of thinking through problems. Working on space debris blows that apart—you have to involve other disciplines, other countries. No one nation can solve this puzzle alone. So that range of different approaches forces a much more creative method of working together on standards and mutual expectations. Because it’s such a wide-open field at this point, space debris mitigation and remediation are ideal topics for international collaboration.
In fact, this is an area I’m actively trying to learn more about. As part of my research with Astroscale U.S., I’ve just recently opened a survey for young professionals looking to pursue space careers from around the world. I’m using this survey as a global “temperature check” for the Artemis generation—our views and perceptions of space sustainability and its influence, both on our careers as individuals and on the future of space activities. How much do we care about sustainability, and what does it mean for each of us, in our own work or field? Are there regional differences between our conception of what is included in space sustainability, and what is not? What are space sustainability concepts that don’t make it to the mainstream? What policies, design methodologies, and other influences are specific to your region—and how do you feel about them?
My goal for this project is to have as wide a response base as possible, with an emphasis on inputs from a widely geographically distributed base. My hope is that students and young professionals from all around the world will share their perspectives and encourage their colleagues, friends, fellow students, and other peers who are also seeking careers in space disciplines to submit a response as well. The results of this survey will be made available to the public and will inform a set of recommendations for policy, technology, and business approaches for the long-term sustainability of space activities. We are also exploring the inclusion of the results of the survey in an upcoming UNOOSA report.
In addition to your important work on orbital debris, you’re on an equally important mission for equal representation, opportunity, and pay in STEM fields and beyond. Tell us more about your thoughts on this? How can organizations such as SGAC and its members do better to get involved?
My view is that the space industry was never designed to be a welcoming place for everyone. Generally speaking, humanity’s use of space technologies began under a very specific set of political conditions, to address a very narrow set of purposes. Like other areas of technology, it’s now finally started to open up to more creative applications, but there are elements of those old approaches and methods that still linger in today’s work cultures. It can be incredibly frustrating, but I think there’s greater recognition of how much harm is being done, and how much we’re losing out on incredible, dynamic and creative talent when we push away people who don’t fit into a preconceived demographic box. There’s still so much we can do to value one another’s contributions and incorporate knowledge from other disciplines, industries, and regions in a more equitable way.
Personally, I get the question a lot of “what can I do,” and I say the same thing every time, that it starts at the interpersonal level and moves up from there to organization-wide commitments. Get to know your peers; challenge yourselves to actively seek out and include marginalized perspectives on your teams. If you don’t see efforts underway in your organization or school, push back on that. Let those in leadership positions know that it matters to you. The other important piece of this issue is to try not to get defensive. Accept that everyone will probably pitch ideas for solutions that, when considered in full, would actually make things worse in practice. Have the humility to listen to that critical feedback and move beyond those ideas for something better.
Listening to the pain points that are specific to your organization or peer group can be uncomfortable to hear. But, once they’re out in the open, working to create the conditions that make your workplace, school, or team a welcoming, more equitable, and safer place benefits everyone. I hope the space industry–across commercial governmental, and academic teams–can keep growing into this mentality and seek out further collaborative, multidisciplinary models of work. Space technologies and data have hugely positive applications for society, but only if we are intentional in how we go about it.