Michigan-based KMI partnered with three universities for the Orbital Prime program
WASHINGTON — Kall Morris Inc. announced Sept. 7 that it has received three study contracts for debris-clearing technologies under the Space Force’s Orbital Prime program.
Michigan-based KMI is a research and development startup focused on space debris remediation.
Orbital Prime is run by SpaceWERX, the technology arm of the US space force. In May he selected 125 industry teams for the initial phase of the program, aimed at promoting the commercial development of technologies for cleaning orbital debris and other space services.
The three KMI awards, worth $750,000, are Small Business Technology Transfer Agreements (STTRs) that require small businesses to partner with academic or non-profit institutions. Winners of the first phase of Orbital Prime can compete for subsequent larger contracts.
The company is launching a debris removal concept that uses sticky arms, a technique known as gecko sticking, to capture debris objects such as inert satellites and rocket bodies that fly into uncontrolled orbit and are unprepared for capture.
For each of the three Orbital Prime Awards, KMI partnered with different universities. He is working with the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Southern California to refine the concept of sticky arms. He teamed up with Stanford University’s Biomimicry and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory to explore other bonding techniques, and with MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to examine ways to perform debris collection and analysis.
Troy Morris, co-founder and COO of KMI, said teamwork between the private sector and universities improves the quality of proposals. “Universities provide technical support, a wealth of experience and testing resources,” he said.. “It helps small businesses so we don’t have to go out and rebuild or buy something that’s already in their lab.”
Business Case for Debris Removal
Morris said the companies participating in the Orbital Prime program hope it will lead to a real debris removal mission and a commitment from the US government to purchase cleanup services from the private sector.
A major hurdle for the industry, he said, is that there are no credible estimates of what it will cost to remove tens of thousands of debris objects that are making space operations increasingly dangerous due to the risk of collisions.
Eliminating space debris is a huge technical challenge and some companies are already doing it demonstrating It’s possible. The hardest piece is the business case, Morris said. “It’s about having the right signage from the Space Force, commercial operators and others to show investors that there is a real market that can move forward and fix the problem.”
Morris said the debris of most concern is the large rocket bodies that would destroy spacecraft in the event of a collision. Most are rocket upper stages launched decades ago that were never designed to be captured or docked with other vehicles.
Companies in the space industry have adopted sustainability plans to minimize debris such as exorbitant non-functioning satellites, but the number of debris objects continues to rise, Morris said.
Many in the space industry believe there is a future market not only in scrap recovery and disposal, but also reusingMorris said, since the rocket bodies would provide raw materials for making hardware in orbit.