Are you ever worried that we, as a race, are turning the planet we live in into a landfill covered in debris? You are probably right, but you might be even more worried if you happened to – metaphorically – look up. Human technology has managed to fill space with debris too. Someone, however, is trying to do something about it. In this interview, Luca Rossettini, CEO of D-Orbit, explains why it is important to clear out space debris and how his company is planning on doing just that. D-Orbit is an Italian startup and it has been classified among the 100 most innovative startups in the world. Many of us still fail to grasp the repercussions that the presence of space debris can have on our lives, and yet it poses a serious threat. In a few years, if we manage to keep our current hyper-technological life standards running, it may well be because of the kind of work that Luca Rossettini and his team started in 2011.
Human societies are still struggling with the concept of sustainability of their own lifestyle on earth, but we appear to have been careless with outer space as well. How bad is the current level of space debris? What consequences could we be facing if the problem is not addressed?
There was a song by Joni Mitchell which explained it perfectly: “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” It’s hard to grasp how essential Space is to our everyday life, until our GPS stops working, our telecommunications drop, the Internet ceases to work on our electronic devices. We are so dependent on something we don’t see. Space is there to help us ameliorate our life, but what would happen if something, someday, was to go wrong?
Since the beginning of the space era we have launched about 6000 satellites. Today, more than 70% of the satellites in orbit is not working, left flying at more than 30 thousands km/h, at risk of collision with other spacecrafts or, worse, at risk of falling onto our head on Earth. Over time, explosions and collisions between human-made objects in space, created hundreds of millions of fragments, most of them not even detectable with current radars and telescopes, threatening the whole space we are using. In fact, one may think space is big… however, we are using just a fraction of space: only a few restricted areas around Earth. If you google “space debris” several images will pop up, showing the situation: planet Earth is barely visible through the thick layers of debris. Even a small piece of paint has enough energy, at that speed, to create serious damage to or destroy a satellite! Scientists are aware of this situation since the beginning. NASA scientist Dr. Kessler predicted quite dramatic scenarios: if the increasing concentration of debris in orbit is not arrested, a chain reaction of collisions may occur, leading to the destruction of the whole satellite fleet around the Earth, just like in the movie Gravity.
How much more debris can we generate before this scenario becomes a reality?
There is still a debate on whether or not the critical tipping point has been reached, but it is not ideal to think about the present situation when the issue requires a more long-term approach. We can argue that the tipping point has been reached and the repercussions will be imminent, so we can only brace ourselves for the worst, or we can think that our current awareness of the issue of space debris is a problem that must imminently be dealt with, and figure out today the best solution to mitigate the problem before it becomes serious tomorrow. If we keep ignoring the potential danger, the level of space junk can grow exponentially just from one outlier incident, as it was apparent from the 2009 collision between the defunct Kosmos with the operational Iridium satellite, or the recent explosion of the meteorological US satellite in an already very dense orbit in the vicinity of Earth. The consequence led to thousands of untraceable pieces of space debris left to wander aimlessly in orbit.
How did the idea for this technology first came about? Can you sum it up briefly for those of us who are not familiar with space engineering?
It started from my secret dream to become an astronaut. I qualified among the top 200 aspiring European candidates but was not selected among the top 4, which put my dreams on hold, until I devised a plan to get to space myself. Of course, to accomplish such feat I had to make sure space remained accessible in the decade to come, which is how the first seed was planted: D-Orbit was born from a need to reach space eventually.
The idea of cleaning up space debris can be broken down into two solutions: one is to actively remove each individual inoperative satellite that has reached the end of its life, or debris generated from a past breakup, with conceptual technology that ranges from space vehicles with robotic arms to nets. The other solution is space debris mitigation, or better, preventing that any spacecraft becomes debris by removing it from orbit as soon as it ceases to work. D-Orbit’s first step revolves on the latter, having developed a smart propulsive system capable of implementing the necessary thrust for any defunct object to be removed from a useful orbit: our first objective is to make sure that whatever you want to put in space can be removed when it will not be useful there. Then we may start “emptying the trash-bin”.
The founders of D-orbit are Italian, but the project was born out of their fortunate encounter in the Silicon Valley. What made you decide to start the actual company in Italy?
My experience studying and working in the Silicon Valley was a great eye opener: I knew there was an idea brooding in my head that could change the entire business in the space industry as we know it. I met Renato Panesi, a fellow Fulbright scholar, who was intrigued by my idea of promoting a long-term sustainable use of space. We started working on a product right away, and additional help to developing the commercial and engineering aspects of D-Orbit was found in two of my acquaintances back in Italy: Giuseppe Tussiwand, a former colleague of mine during my doctorate at the Polytechnic University of Milan, and Thomas Panozzo, my former university classmate, currently Sales Director at Arianespace. Of course the US offers great advantages in terms of capital available and low psychological barriers against young and innovative companies. However, what I needed most at the beginning of the D-Orbit adventure was good brains at reasonable costs. Italian engineers are appreciated worldwide for their flexibility, adaptability, creativity and rapidity in resolving issues, even on transversal fields with respect to their own. Exactly what I was looking for. Having realized that, I booked the first flight to Italy.
What international partners are you currently working with?
We are working closely with several key players in the satellite manufacturing industry as well as being involved in important projects promoted by the European Space Agency and the European Commission, here in Europe. We are starting now to explore the US market as well: we have a US subsidiary with American executives working to establish our business overseas.
The concept of “made-in-Italy” is commonly associated with tradition, lifestyle and with a cluster of brands connected to such values. D-orbit, on the other hand, is among the 100 most innovative companies in the world. How would you rate the entity and the effectiveness of the current Italian investments in innovation and new technologies?
It is worth mentioning that Italy was the third nation to launch a satellite in space after the Soviet Union and the United States. Our country is drenched with an incredibly large amount of experience and experienced people. Italy has the potential to become a nation-hub for high technology and innovation: a match for creativity and technology. Also, Italy is very attractive to foreign smart people willing to find innovative working environments and we believe this is a key asset not only for D-Orbit. On the other hand, Italy – but the rest of Europe is almost on the same track, unfortunately – is not famous for large venture capital investment funds. The average investment fund size in Italy is orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest US funds. However, smart investors exist also in Italy, otherwise I would not be here talking! Joking aside, the Italian investment environment is starting to grow and I believe a better concentration of capitals to create larger funds will allow to grow more companies within our territory. We also have had a lot of support from Italian credit institutions to promote our business, both nationally and internationally. The financing of innovative startups like D-Orbit is a pivotal aspect in reinventing the “made in Italy” and it is striving to promote economic growth in order to maintain competitiveness in the global market.
What is a B-corp and why is it important that such a status is now recognised in Italy too?
B-Corpration certification is an excellent way to assist for-profit businesses in implementing a sustainable framework progress beyond the usual business standards. It is important for a business to leverage its environmental and social practices, and we have found it to be a great competitive advantage in an industry as conservative as ours. If Italy wants to promote innovation, it should start by legally recognizing those companies that are committing to a higher standard of transparency in their governance, in favor of all of its stakeholders, which include its employees, community, clients, and suppliers and is not limited to their shareholders.
As a startup, you have worked with incubators and private investors of various descriptions. Which path would you recommend for a young, innovative Italian startup in 2016? Are your backers Italian or international?
We rely both on Italian and international backers to make our business a success. The most important takeaway to future innovators is to seek an excellent team, experienced mentors and establish an advisory board specifically geared to counsel under conditions of extreme uncertainty.