Some months ago, I wrote a post – A fun idea for a moon mission – about a robotic lunar program I would fund if I had billions to burn and wanted to help advance humans into becoming a spacefaring civilization. The idea would be to 3D print bricks with actual lunar regolith to see how strong they would be. I was thinking about this recently, and I wondered what other space missions I would fund – if I had billions to burn – to help humans in space. What I came up with was the J-Prize, I guess, for space junk removal.
This would start with three small satellites, probably launched on an Electron rocket. The first would be your basic cube sat, the second would be a larger cube sat, but with a solar panel sticking out so it would be odd shaped, and the third satellite would remain attached to the kick stage to help simulate a more massive satellite. These would be put into slightly different orbits, but which are pretty much guaranteed to decay in the five-to-six-year range. What exactly these satellites would do, I’d leave that to whoever builds them, probably schools or universities that I would give a free ride to orbit to. There would be the understanding that these satellites would be given one year to function, but after that they would become targets for deorbiting tech demonstrations. So they might function for the full five years, or get deorbited right after one year in orbit.
The tech demonstrations would have three tiers. The first tier would be to just inspect the satellites. To that end, there would be symbols, or code phrases put on each. Prelaunch photos of them would be blurred, and everyone who knows what they are would have to sign NDAs, so to get these codes you’d have to actually fly to these satellites. And there might be two or three on each satellite, each worth X dollars. For the third satellite, they might be big and easy to spot, but for the cube sat, they might just be a centimeter in size, so the imaging satellite would have to fly real close to be able to make it out. So, unlike the other tiers which would pay out more for the larger satellites, for the first tier you’d make the most imaging the smallest.
The second tier would pay if you manage to deorbit the satellite early. This could be accomplished by attaching some sort of drag, or attaching a small rocket to push it out of orbit, whatever. The third tier would be if they manage to return the satellite intact to Earth.
I have no idea what the exact prize amounts would be, but I’d say that the second tier would be more than enough to refund the cost of manufacturing the deorbiting satellite and launching it. And, there would be bonus prizes. Like, if a company successfully deorbits one of the test satellites, then for the next ten years they’d get $1 million for each piece of space junk they deorbit. But if a company didn’t succeed with one of these test satellites, but they do succeed with some other junk within the next ten years, they’d get $500 thousand, or something. Because the whole idea of this is to try to incentivize companies into finding ways to clean up space junk. As such, I wondered if there should be a penalty if they damage a satellite and create space junk, but that would scare people off. And that’s why these test satellites would be put into such short-lived orbits.