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Miki Ito: On a mission

Space is less a final frontier these days than a final garbage dump. Japan's Miki Ito has a plan to scrub space clean of junk


g_106571_miki_tio_280x210.jpgMiki Ito 35, President Astroscale japan, Japan

Depending on the size cut-off, there are anywhere from 20,000 to 100 million fragments speeding around Earth at up to 8 kilometres per second, ranging from tiny specks of forgotten satellites to chunks of failed rockets. Collisions between objects create even more debris, a situation that left unchecked could theoretically make space unusable.

That’s where 35-year-old Miki Ito comes in. With a master’s degree in aerospace ­engineering from Nihon University, Ito is president of Astroscale Japan, which was founded to find cost-effective ways to clean up space. Astroscale, which has raised about $53 million in funding, has its corporate headquarters in Singapore but carries out development in ­Japan, where it has a research agreement with the country’s space agency and is developing a demonstration satellite called ELSA-d to remove space junk.

As Japan struggles to bolster its number of female executives, Ito is a rare woman in STEM and one of just a few at an aerospace startup. In an interview with Forbes Asia, she explains what inspired her career:

Ito: In junior high school, the movie Independence Day left an impression on me. The alien spaceship was so futuristic and beautiful. After that, I wanted to do work related to space—that could have been as an astronaut or building rockets. I entered college with the general idea of space and entered a lab that was working on satellites.

Q. What was your experience in STEM at a Japanese university?
There are quite a few women in chemistry, biology and architecture. But there are not that many in engineering. It didn’t really affect me that there were mainly men around me. Not being overly feminine, I didn’t feel that they treated me differently because I was a woman.

Q. What’s behind the mini-boom in Japanese space startups?
Investment has become easier because of small satellites. And it’s become cheaper. They’ve gotten smaller because high-performance components have become smaller and less expensive, and the realisation... that off-the-shelf commercial components can work in space.

Q. What was your experience before joining Astroscale?
I was a satellite engineer for a programme to build small satellites sponsored by the cabinet office. They were 50-centimetre cubes weighing 50 to 60 kilograms to observe the Earth with two cameras. The goal was to quickly and cheaply make satellites that would just get the job done.

Q. What is Astroscale’s business model?

With [telecommunications, aerospace and other companies] wanting to put up low-Earth-orbit satellites by the thousands for communication and Earth observation, if a satellite fails the service provider will want to send a replacement. But that isn’t possible unless the broken satellite is first dealt with. We can put physical targets on the satellites of companies we have contracts with, in case one needs to be captured and pushed back into the atmosphere to burn up. Our satellite would capture the broken satellite and propel itself and the dead unit into the atmosphere. The technical hurdle for this is much lower than for current debris already in space.

Q. When do you expect commercialisation?
We plan to launch the ELSA-d demonstration satellite toward the end of 2019 to test its chase, capture and deorbit capabilities and to commercialise starting in 2020.