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A life-centred design approach to innovation: Space Vulture, a conceptual circular system to create value from space debris

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Space debris threatens modern society and future generations. It is a symptom of severe unsustainability, and an alarming sign that there is an urgent need for change. Solutions-based linear-thinking has resulted in current innovations predominantly being either technological or managerial. Space debris, however, is a systemic problem that requires global action, and here we consider it as not only an engineering problem, but rather an incentives problem with social and cultural implications. As design engineers, a process for design-thinking is proposed, which takes a values-based life-centred approach to debris removal. Set in 2070, the outcome is Space Vulture, a conceptual closed-loop system designed to capture orbital waste, process it into raw materials, to be used in space to manufacture objects that increase subjective well-being. We emphasise, herein, the opportunity of combining intuitive and rational thinking at a systems level to deliver multi-scale innovations that tackle space debris.
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A life-centred design approach to innovation:
Space Vulture, a conceptual circular system to create value from space debris.
Fatimah El-Rashid(1)(2)*, Thomas Gossner(1)(2)*, Tobias Kappeler(1)(2)*, Mariona Ruiz-Peris(1)(2)*
(1) Imperial College London, Exhibition Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 2BX, United Kingdom, Email:
{f.el-rashid19, t.gossner19, t.kappeler19, mariona.ruiz-peris19}@imperial.ac.uk
(2) Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, South Kensington, London SW7 2EU, United Kingdom, Email:
{fatimah.el-rashid, thomas.gossner, tobias.kappeler, mariona.ruizperis}@network.rca.ac.uk
*These authors contributed equally to this work.
ABSTRACT
Space debris threatens modern society and future
generations. It is a symptom of severe unsustainability,
and an alarming sign that there is an urgent need for
change. Solutions-based linear-thinking has resulted in
current innovations predominantly being either
technological or managerial. Space debris, however, is a
systemic problem that requires global action, and here we
consider it as not only an engineering problem, but rather
an incentives problem with social and cultural
implications. As design engineers, a process for design-
thinking is proposed, which takes a values-based life-
centred approach to debris removal. Set in 2070, the
outcome is Space Vulture, a conceptual closed-loop
system designed to capture orbital waste, process it into
raw materials, to be used in space to manufacture objects
that increase subjective well-being. We emphasise,
herein, the opportunity of combining intuitive and
rational thinking at a systems level to deliver multi-scale
innovations that tackle space debris.
Key words:
Innovation Design Engineering;
Life-Centred Design;
Systems Thinking;
Circular Economy;
Debris Removal;
Space Sustainability
1 INTRODUCTION
Space debris, including rocket bodies, defunct
satellites and other technological waste is
increasingly occupying space around Earth. As
Damjanov [1] eloquently put it,
“These remnants of technologies, which
once sustained the global production and
exchange of data, information, and
images, are an extraterrestrial equivalent
of the electronic waste discarded on
Earth.”
Space debris is one of the largest human-generated
waste formations, and its accumulation is a
symptom of the increasing, unsustainable
modernisation of human societies.
Humans have been exploring space since 1957, when the
first artificial satellite was launched to orbit Earth [2].
Since then, thousands of rockets and even more satellites
have been launched into orbit; and in the next few years,
50,000 additional satellites are expected to be sent to
space [3]. To date, there are roughly 5,000 satellites in
Low Earth Orbit (LEO), about 3,000 of which are
defunct (i.e., non-operational) [4]. In addition, there are
approximately 34,000 fragments of debris larger than 10
cm in size, and millions of smaller fragments which are
no less hazardous due to their high velocity [5]. If space
debris is left unattended, the risk of debris collision and
the potential cascading effects, a phenomenon dubbed
the Kessler Syndromeafter Donald Kessler in 1978,
could potentially threaten the continuity of modern life
on Earth and the future of space exploration [6]. Despite
this, throughout history humanity has all too often been
irresponsible with waste, and the ‘out of sight, out of
mind’ mindset has continued to prevail.
Like ocean plastics, space debris is considered a wicked
problem since space itself is a social good but there is
currently no central governing authority, and those
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seeking to solve the problem are also causing the problem
[7]. In other words, space debris is a huge, complex,
systemic challenge with no definitive formulation. While
space debris is scientifically apparent, it presents great
technical, economic and social complexity; the latter, in
particular, results in the challenge of maladaptive
behaviour, which makes it difficult to find sustainable
solutions.
In our view, space debris is a global concern and there is
a global need to enhance space safety and support long-
term space sustainability. Despite this, a lack of global
incentive to act has limited global efforts, with all current
solutions being developed within the space industry by
actors like the European Space Agency (ESA). To date,
proposed solutions have been primarily technological or
managerial. Technological fixes, targeting the removal of
debris from orbit, and managerial fixes, focused on de-
orbiting satellites at end-of-life, both adopt primarily
science-based linear modes of thinking [8].
However, given the urgency to act, solutions-based
linear-thinking processes for innovation alone will not be
sufficient in tackling the challenges posed by space debris
because they fundamentally change neither incentives
nor behaviours. As Rao [9] stated, this is an incentive
problem more than an engineering problem. What is key
is getting the incentives right.”
Unfortunately, space debris is relatively unknown to most
people, and even within the space sector, many know of
the problem but aren’t working on it. Therefore, a design-
engineering lens was taken to view the problem in order
to determine how we might design innovation that will
create incentive for people to clean up space debris. In
this paper, a process for design-thinking is proposed in
Section 2, which takes a values-based, life-centred design
approach to deliver debris removal innovations. Section
3 presents Space Vulture, a conceptual system design that
transforms space waste into valuable raw materials,
which are then used to manufacture objects that are found
to increase subjective well-being. Herein, progress and
key challenges faced by current debris removal efforts are
described to emphasise the many inherent complexities
founded in the problem space. Reasons for adopting
broader life-centric systems approaches to design-
thinking is discussed in Section 4, where the limitations
of human-centred design (HCD) for tackling systemic
problems are discussed together with the implications of
circular economy production systems for managing space
debris and all other types of waste. Finally, Section 5
considers the future of society and the planet, and urges
problem-solvers to widen their view of the world in order
to deliver multi-scale innovations for tackling systemic
wicked problems like space debris.
2 METHODOLOGY: INNOVATION
DESIGN PROCESS
2.1 Double Diamond
A holistic approach commonly known as the double
diamond provided the necessary overarching framework
to deliver an innovative concept. The approach blends
technical and design tools for problem solving and
opportunity exploration, and was described by Dorst and
Dijkhuis as opposing paradigms of design activity [10].
Figure 1. The four-stage double diamond design model.
Futures-thinking is applied to discover and define the
problem; and a life-centred design (LCD) approach is
applied to design innovation. The combination of
methods requires both divergent (intuitive) and
convergent (rational) modes of thinking. [11]
The diamonds in Figure 1 represent the divergent and
convergent processes of thinking employed at each of the
key phases: discover, define, develop and deliver.
Thinking either diverges and broadens (represented as
the double peak), or converges and focuses (represented
as the intersection), in order to reframe the problem and
design innovation accordingly. Dynamically switching
between divergent and convergent thinking and
methodologies enables conceivement and delivery of
creative yet rigorous innovation [12].
2.2 First Diamond: Defining the Problem
The purpose of the first diamond is to discover and define
the problem. Divergent thinking was initially employed,
where a futures approach was taken to identify the key
trends and factors shaping the development of space
sustainability, and to explore their implications for
innovation in this area.
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Figure 2. Futures process for developing and testing
innovation design and strategy. An adaptation of UK
GOC Futures Toolkit [13].
Fig. 2 provides an overview of the steps taken, and
foresighting tools used, in the futures process, which is
based on the UK Government Office for Science’s
Futures Toolkit [13]. Originally created for developing
and testing policy and strategy, here it has been adapted
for developing and testing innovation design. The core
function of applying foresighting tools is to gather
intelligence about the future, explore dynamics of change
and scenario building, and to better define the problem by
anticipating future opportunities and threats [14]. Given
the uncertainties of the future of space sustainability, it is
essential to apply foresight to understand potential future
outcomes.
2.2.1 Horizon Scanning
The first step in the futures process was to gain an
understanding of the future. This was done via horizon
scanning, described by the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) as, “a technique
for detecting early signs of potentially important
developments through a systematic examination of
potential threats and opportunities, with emphasis on
new technology and its effects on the issue at hand.” [15].
With divergent thinking employed it is not intended to
predict future events, instead looking for early drivers of
change [14]. Desktop research and workshop discussions
were conducted to gather information about emerging
trends and developments that could have an impact on the
future of space sustainability.
2.2.2 Driver Mapping
Driver mapping facilitated horizon scanning, and was
used to explore the dynamics of change. This process was
conducted using the PESTEL conceptual framework to
identify political, economic, societal, technological,
environmental and legal drivers shaping space
sustainability and the future of space debris. As shown in
Fig. 3, drivers were mapped based on the potential impact
they pose on space sustainability and the certainty of the
outcome.
Figure 3. A map of drivers identified via PESTEL.
Drivers of change found in the top right quadrant are
known as ‘critical uncertainties’ for the future.
Drivers located in the top right quadrant are also known
as critical uncertainties [16], that is, those which have
the potential to highly impact the future of space
sustainability and the problem of space debris, but there
is significant uncertainty in the probable outcomes. In
other words, drivers in this quadrant create the most
critical and uncertain futures. Herein, space
entrepreneurship and Kessler Syndrome are recognised
as two of the most critical uncertainties that determine
the future.
2.2.3 Axes of Uncertainty
Axes of uncertainty were used to characterise the nature
of the selected critical uncertainties: space
entrepreneurship and Kessler Syndrome to produce a
scenario matrix, with the two most extreme situations
plotted on either end of the axis for each of the critical
uncertainties. This is shown in Fig. 4.
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Figure 4. Scenario matrix based on axes of uncertainty
of two critical uncertainties: ‘Space entrepreneurship’
and ‘Kessler Syndrome’. Bottom left quadrant, “Trapped
in Debris” was chosen as the hypothetical future
scenario in 2070.
The top left quadrant was chosen as the hypothetical
scenario for framing the space debris problem.
Extensively informed by scientific research and
forecasted trends, this scenario considers continuity of
life on Earth to be increasingly threatened by global
challenges like climate change, resource depletion and
space debris [17]. For space debris, in particular, debris
collisions have become more frequent, and now there’s
global concern and a growing movement to take
collective action [18].
2.2.4 Scenario Building
Scenario building is a crucial step in the futures process
because it is an opportunity to freely create alternative
futures and explore the different drivers of change that
might support or constrain achieving these futures. It is a
tool used to help anticipate how the future might differ
from today in order to define the problem. The purpose
was to create a hypothetical future scenario based on the
top left quadrant of the scenario matrix, enabling the
design of innovation that works towards achieving that
future. Three future scenarios set in the years 2030, 2050
and 2070 were developed.
2.2.4.1 2070: Hypothetical Future Scenario
As shown in Fig 5., this paper frames the problem of
space debris and the future of space sustainability in the
year 2070:
Humans have advanced considerably in the last 50 years.
Space entrepreneurship has boomed, and along with it,
came the addition of at least 50,0000 known satellites. As
a result, space debris has rapidly accumulated over the
last 50 years, and the frequency of debris collisions has
grown exponentially making the Kessler Syndrome a
highly likely phenomenon. Given human societies’
reliance on space activities and exploration, and
increased awareness of the major risks of space debris
on human civilisation, global action is needed more than
ever. However, with space actors mainly adopting debris
avoidance technologies, there is little incentive even
within the space sector to clean up space.
Figure 5. A collage that illustrates the hypothetical 2070
future scenario.
2.2.5 Backcasting
Backcasting is the last step in the futures process for
discovering and defining the problem. The purpose of
backcasting is to determine a problem view set in the
future, and then work backwards. It offers space for a
design vision and the impact which we would like to see
happen. The process of backcasting fundamentally asks
what actions must be taken in order to attain the desired
future. It became evident that to achieve the desired
future in 2070, global awareness about space debris
would need to increase so that more people take action.
2.3 Second Diamond: Designing the Solution
For the second half of the double diamond process, the
goal was to design innovation that could potentially
create incentive for people to collectively tackle space
debris. This was done by adopting design-thinking, a
process popularised by IDEO, a design and innovation
consultancy, which takes a human-centred design (HCD)
approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s
toolkit to integrate technical feasibility, business viability
and human desirability [19]. Key phases of the HCD
approach are highlighted in Fig. 6.
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Figure 6. The design thinking process model.
HCD enforces broad thinking and, importantly, thinking
about who the design is for. It can, however, be
considered too human-centric when tackling systemic
problems. If we put the human at the center, we often end
up doing so “at the expense of everything else” [20], as
it was simply stated by Johanna Fabrin. Certainly, the
only way forward that ensures a good future for humanity
is one that ensures the planet’s wellbeing [20]. Thus, we
need an approach that understands the complex system of
interdependencies that inherently exist between society
and the planet [20].
Being humane is characterised by compassion and
empathy for not only humans but all living beings and the
natural environment. To be sustainable is to be humane.
This requires recognition that the wellbeing of humans,
ecosystems and the common planet are all deeply
interconnected. With this in mind, the HCD approach has
been expanded to consider all living beings, to which we
refer here as life-centred design (LCD), as illustrated in
Fig 7.
Figure 7. A values-based life centred design approach
goes beyond traditional HCD by considering the impact
of design on the wider society and planet.
2.3.1 Observation
The first phase of the LCD approach is to define the
problem through observation. As previously outlined,
because the problem of space debris is founded in
uncertainty, especially for the future, the problem was
defined in the desired future described in Section 2.2.4.1.
However, since a well-framed problem is key to
increasing the likelihood that the designed innovation
will be more desirable, viable and feasible, the design-
technique of asking 5 why questions was used to probe
deeper. Here, it was recognised that there are two key
challenges to achieving the desired future: current debris
mitigation technologies like harpoon and net capturing
systems, which incinerate debris at the end of the process
[8], will not be sustainable in the desired future; and that
there is a lack of global awareness about the problem of
space debris.
2.3.2 Ideation
In the next phase of the LCD-approach, divergent
thinking was employed for ideation. The purpose was to
identify innovation that could potentially increase global
incentive to tackle space debris. Tools involved in
ideation included: brainstorming and mind maps; and
prompting ‘what if’ questions to identify innovations at
multiple scales. The outcome was a suite of conceptual
ideas ranging from social approaches to increase
awareness about the problem of space debris, to
technological solutions to make debris mitigation
circular.
2.3.3 Rapid Prototyping
‘Rapid prototyping’ is an important phase of the design-
thinking process because prototypes are draft designs
made tangible for evaluation with different stakeholders.
It’s worth noting that it is a challenge to prototype ideas
that are set in a timeframe of 50 years from now. In order
to help people understand the conceptual ideas, the
format of advertisements was chosen as they are
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designed to stimulate peoples’ thoughts and reactions.
Fig. 8 shows the exploration of an early idea of making
space debris a desirable product for the wider population.
Figure 8. Advertisement developed during the rapid
prototyping stage visualising an early idea of space
debris removal.
2.3.4 Feedback
This was the most critical phase of the design process.
Feedback was gathered from potential stakeholders
ranging from regular people through to experts in the
professional and academic fields of aerospace
engineering, policy, sustainable consumption and
manufacturing, material engineering, innovation and
product design. The outcome was two key insights:
1. Like efforts to tackle climate change, raising
awareness alone does not incentivise a call for
global action. What drives action is if value can
be found in tackling space debris for everyone.
It’s not a one-size-fits all innovation; rather a
combination of innovations both upstream and
downstream.
2. A key factor is missing when designing the
closed-loop system, and that is human
desirability. Similar to plastic clean up, there
needs to be a reason for recycling space debris
that goes beyond doing good for the planet and
the people.
2.3.5 Iteration
Based on the feedback, the process was iterated, with the
goal of obtaining a deeper understanding of the idea of a
closed-loop debris removal system that creates human
desire. Applying previously conducted techniques again,
such as the five whys, allowed for a deeper understanding
into what would compel humans to interact with recycled
space debris. An insightful comparison was with that of
ocean plastic, where material previously considered to be
waste evolved to a sought after resource finding its way
into the most diverse industries as demand by the wider
population increased. Building personas and identifying
the needs and desires of the potential end-users through
storyboards, guided the ideation and design of the final
elements of our system: objects of human desire that
could be produced using our closed-loop conceptual
framework.
2.3.6 Delivery
The final delivery focused on the validation and
communication of the proposed concept. Various
renderings, illustrations and sketches were created with
the aim of communicating the outcome in a compelling,
detailed and easily accessible way.
Finally, the concept was validated by the same group of
experts and previous shortcomings were deemed solved.
In collaboration with relevant stakeholders as well as the
various space actors further iterations of this process
would allow for continuous development and
optimisation of the Space Vulture system.
3 PROPOSED INNOVATION: SPACE
VULTURE
The outcome of adopting divergent-convergent modes of
thinking in a double diamond process resulted in the
Space Vulture, a conceptual design of a closed-loop
system that captures space debris, recycling it into raw
materials, which are then repurposed into humanly
desired objects that deem of value for human
psychological needs. As shown in Fig. 9, this section
describes the phases of Space Vulture’s closed-loop
active debris removal (ADR) mission, which consists of
five phases: (1) launch and cruise, (2) capture, (3)
onboard pulverisation, (4) material transport &
maintenance, and (5) space recycling and manufacturing.
It’s worth emphasising that Space Vulture is a conceptual
idea, which may not be technically feasible today, but is
based on current and historic trends in scientific research,
through which the feasibility of current technologies is
projected 50 years into the future.
Metallic debris accounts for a large portion of artificial
debris, with 44% of debris hitting the ISS composed of
aluminium and 12% of steel [21]. Given rapid resource
depletion on Earth, metallic space debris is an increasing,
heretofore untapped source of valuable material in LEO
[22] that could potentially be recycled and repurposed.
Because of this, Space Vulture does not burn the captured
debris in the Earth’s atmosphere, instead feeding it into
the inside of the chaser spacecraft where pulverisation
technology grinds debris into fine powder.
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3.1 Phase 1: Launch and Cruise
The Space Vulture system comprises several chaser
spacecraft scattered throughout LEO. The overhead cost
of space launches is expected to dramatically decrease in
the next fifty years for several reasons. Firstly,
widespread adoption of vehicle reuse [23], first
performed by SpaceX as a method to deploy secondary
payloads aboard rockets that are already planned for
launch [24]. This technique, which can be considered a
ride share, is proposed for Space Vulture spacecraft,
which will be launched into orbit as secondary payloads.
Current research suggests that similar strategies, with
sustainability inherent at the core, in conjunction with
increased space entrepreneurship, where more private
companies might emerge in the sector, is likely to
continue reducing the cost of space launches in the future
[25]. In addition, the current trend towards adopting
sustainability in the design process supports the system
concept of Space Vulture as it is very likely that
sustainability principles like reusability will be expanded
to accommodate reuse of space debris.
Space Vulture’s chaser spacecraft detaches from the
launch vehicle upon entry in LEO and begins the long-
term mission. A propulsion system is required for the
spacecraft to continuously cruise, chase debris and
manoeuvre captured debris into the main body of the
spacecraft. Most importantly, Space Vulture spacecraft
require a propulsion system that ensures long-term travel,
either with a self-sustaining propulsion system or one
that efficiently uses fuel thus requires little maintenance.
As shown in Fig. 10, a solar electric propulsion (SEP)
system [26] was proposed. SEP is a non-chemical and
has proved to be successful for various types of missions
including near-Earth asteroid exploration [27] [28], and
discovery-class missions [28]. The spacecraft has a
foldable solar array that is used to power the SEP system
[30]. High specific impulse characterises SEP, with fuel
efficiency roughly ten times greater than those of
chemical propulsion systems [31]. However, SEP
systems operate at low power levels, which will be a
challenge when the spacecraft chases and captures
debris. Notwithstanding, there is ongoing research
focused on increasing power levels of SEP [32].
While SEP is considered fuel efficient, it still requires a
propellant in order to function, which suggests that on-
orbit refueling systems need to be in place by 2070.
Therein, propulsions systems that do not require a
propellant were explored, namely solar sails and nuclear
fusion propulsion (NFP).
Solar sails are typically used for deep space exploration
because they are self-sustaining systems, which only
require radiation pressure and momentum transfer to
Figure 9. Overview of each mission phase of the Space Vulture system.
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operate [26]. However, solar sails are deemed inadequate
for Space Vulture due to challenges with acceleration and
the mere size of the solar sails poses a large risk for debris
collision [33].
NFP, on the other hand, has the potential to revolutionise
space exploration by using nuclear to power vehicles.
Unlike SEP, NFP is expected to generate high thrust with
a high specific impulse [26, 34]. NFP is ideally the best
option for Space Vulture, however, nuclear fusion is still
in its infancy with a technology-readiness level (TRL) of
2 [35]. Given, however, current discourse regarding
nuclear energy in conjunction with the uncertainties
found in the problem of space debris, it is unclear whether
NFP would exist in 2070. As such, SEP was chosen as
the preferred propulsion system for Space Vulture chaser
spacecraft. While it will have to rely on refuelling, on-
orbit refuelling services are expected to exist in 2070 (see
Section 3.5).
Figure 10. The Space Vulture chaser spacecraft is
propelled by (1) a high-power solar electric propulsion
system (2) that ensures controlled de-orbiting to capture
debris. (3) An origami solar array is deployed to produce
the electricity needed for solar electric propulsion.
3.2 Phase 2: Capture
Space Vulture’s chaser spacecraft begins the long-term
mission once placed LEO. Active debris removal (ADR)
is performed, which is considered an effective
remediation technique to permanently remove space
debris from LEO [36]. There are three key steps for
capturing debris: target, chase then capture.
According to ESA’s Annual Space Environment Report
2020, there are currently 8782.5 tons of artificial objects
in Earth’s orbits [37]. Of the total, 2000 tons stem from
1,300 massive rocket bodies and defunct satellites [38]
equivalent to over 2,000,000 kg of mass [39]. These are
among the most hazardous pieces of space debris as a
potential collision is capable of generating more lethal
fragments that can impact operational man-made objects
[40]. From a materials perspective, recycling larger
debris generates more raw materials to be used for
manufacturing.
Current debris mitigation innovation has primarily
focused on the physical removal of debris from LEO [8],
and include nets [41], harpoons [42] [43], tethers [44] and
laser [45]. Inspired by the ClearSpace-1 satellite [46],
Space Vulture’s capture mechanism, illustrated in Fig.
11, is a multi-arm robotics-based system that acts as a
claw to capture debris larger than 10cm in diameter.
Figure 11. The multi-arm robotics-based system is
designed to (1) target, (2) chase, and (3) capture debris.
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Machine learning (ML) algorithms are increasingly used
for object characterisation of space resident objects
(SRO), which includes space debris [47]. Successful
application of ML technologies in other areas of space
exploration suggest it has the potential to be applied to
debris tracking, with significant scope for intelligent,
autonomous systems. More recently, the first data driven
approach to classify space objects using real
observational light curve data was developed [48].
Current methods are based on data capture on Earth (e.g.
via telescope) but these advancements, if eventually
combined with sensor technologies (e.g. laser ranging,
infrared imagery) [48] pave the way for on-board real-
time image detection systems, similar to ESA’s
ClearSpace-1 on-board computer [49]. ClearSpace-1
mission, planned for 2025, aims to implement a dedicated
rendezvous payload computer system to address major
ADR challenges, namely target tracking, proximity
manoeuvre and capture.
After detection, the system has to achieve the right
capture position by performing a set of orbital
manoeuvres, a process that can also benefit from ML-
based optimisation. Optical debris tracking techniques
have been used for object positioning with improved
accuracy with respect to other methods [50]. There are
current approaches that suggest laser-induced thrust for
this purpose as a good candidate in space debris removal
operations [51].
However, when it comes to performing the manoeuvres,
SEP poses a major challenge for acceleration and
deceleration. Currently, a propulsion system that can
accelerate the chaser spacecraft at varying speeds does
not exist, but there is a need. Thus, in the future, it is
likely that technical advancements in SEP and nuclear
fusion propulsion will render it possible for the chaser
spacecraft to effectively chase and capture targeted
debris.
Today, ADR technologies that involve orbital robotics
are considered relatively well-understood, since the
technologies already exist; however, capture of large,
non-cooperative objects is a highly challenging task,
especially with a robotic mechanism [52]. Contactless
ADR technologies are also currently under development,
including laser systems [45]. These mechanisms might be
better suited as they’re not limited by debris size. Given
today’s pressing need for more advanced systems that can
cope with uncooperative, tumbling objects, it is likely
that these systems will be developed in the next 50 years.
Therefore, the proposed capture mechanism of the Space
Vulture system can be considered technically feasible in
2070 on the condition that future propellant systems
provide adequate thrust.
3.3 Phase 3: Onboard Debris Pulverisation
As shown in Fig. 12, Space Vulture has been integrated
with an onboard pulverisation mechanism that breaks
down and subsequently crushes captured debris into fine
particles ranging from 3µm - 45µm [53], which is the
typical size required for additive manufacturing
processes.
Figure 12. Pulverisation of collected space debris
through (3) a rotating cutter head drill and (2) a cone
crusher. The pulverised material is stored in (1) service
vehicles connected to the chaser spacecraft.
Based on recent developments in asteroid mining
technologies, captured debris is broken down into
smaller pieces by a set of rotating cutter head drills,
which was inspired by terrestrial hard rock processing
[54]. Space Vulture’s robotic claw steers the small pieces
of debris into the main body of the chaser spacecraft, in
which the debris is pulverised into raw material
composites of fine particles suitable for additive
manufacturing.
The cone crusher is considered the most suitable for the
Space Vulture system because the mechanism is capable
of producing particles of various sizes due to its ability to
adjust cone eccentricity [55]. As the final step, the raw
material composite is collected and stored in service
vehicles (see Section 3.4) fitted in the Space Vulture,
ready to be transported to the space recycling facilities
(SRF).
Pulverisation processes on Earth, like cryogenic grinding
for example, operate at temperatures below freezing
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because it reduces tool wear significantly and causes the
brittleness of materials to increase [55]. As such, all types
of material including those with elastic and fibrous
properties can be pulverised [57]. Given the freezing
temperatures of LEO reaching levels around -120°C [58],
pulverisation may be possible in space.
However, there are many challenges associated with
pulverisation in space, especially on-board a spacecraft.
The lack of gravity increases the risk of high-energy
particles being generated during the pulverisation
process. As such, safety measures must be in place to
ensure the safe storage and collection of raw composite
materials and to prevent any fine particles from escaping
the spacecraft. Explosive batteries and propellant tanks
may also pose a challenge, in addition to the potential
corrosion caused by them. Therefore, systems must be in
place that disarm debris before pulverisation takes place.
3.4 Phase 4: Transportation and Maintenance
The next phase of the Space Vulture system transports the
raw material composites to the SRF. Inspired by
CubeSats [59], service vehicles (Fig. 13) are used to
interchangeably transport the raw material composites
from the spacecraft to the SRF, and to transport fuel from
on-orbit refuelling stations back to the chaser spacecraft.
The advantages of service vehicles is the optimisation of
space, weight and time for the spacecraft, in addition to
making sure the spacecraft receives regular maintenance.
However, there are several challenges that need to be
addressed, which include determining the right ratio
between Space Vulture spacecraft and refuelling stations;
and making sure the service vehicles safely dock onto the
chaser spacecraft without generating more debris and
increasing collision risk.
Figure 13. The service vehicles are designed to (1,2)
store and transport either raw material composite or fuel.
Assemblage, maintenance and manufacturing of space
infrastructure has currently been shifting away from on-
Earth to on-orbit [60]. It is argued that such a shift could
potentially reduce the costs of launch and transportation
[61]. There are several private actors in this space
including Orbit Fab attempting to create gas stations in
space [62], Astroscale currently developing novel
logistics systems for on-orbit manufacturing [63], and
Maxar developing on-orbit assembly robotics [64].
On-orbit services, like those mentioned, are expected to
provide significant economic value [61] [65] and have
the potential to become commercially viable 15 years
from now [61]. While current satellites were designed
without maintenance in mind, the last few years have
seen increased adoption of sustainability principles, like
reusability, for the design and development of space
technologies [60].
In the 2070 hypothetical future scenario, recycling
facilities are expected to exist in space. Current
advancements in on-orbit assembly suggest that there is
potential for large infrastructure, like facilities, to be
constructed directly in space [61], which suggests that the
potential existence of space recycling facilities (SRF) is
plausible.
3.5 Phase 5: Material Recycling and
Manufacturing
The SRF of the Space Vulture system includes a material
separation, analysis and an additive manufacturing
facility as highlighted in Fig. 14. Additive manufacturing
(AM) in space has been widely explored [66] [67] and
several processes have already been tested in orbit [68].
In 2018, for example, the International Space Station
(ISS) successfully attempted liquid phase sintering
(LPS) [69], a sintering process for pulverised material
composites to fabricate durable, net-shaped composites
of any shape. Currently, LPS is a widely adopted AM
process used across industries ranging from construction
to automotive [70].
Given the rapid adoption of AM on Earth and the
successful attempts in space, it is highly plausible that
AM operations will be conducted in space in 2070. As
such, the final phase of the Space Vulture system is the
separation of the raw material composites into material
types at the SRF. The separation process can be achieved
using techniques like electrostatic (ES) or magnetic
(MS), both of which are currently being explored for
lunar and asteroid mining [71]. Successful
experimentation [72] in recent years have proven ES to
be a potentially viable technique for in-space material
separation, especially tribocharging [73], which is
considered to have the highest technology-readiness
level (TRL) for separation in space.
Space Vulture’s raw material composites may pose a
challenge for separation because it’s likely to be made up
11
of many different material types. A terrestrial chemical
analysis method called Laser Raman Spectroscopy (LRS)
has been widely explored for space material analysis
[74], and can be used in this instance to determine the
exact material types found in the raw material
composites. This analysis is also useful for
manufacturing processes to be adapted accordingly.
Figure 14. The Space Recycling Facility consists of a
module to (2) separate the collected raw material
composite, (1) conduct material analysis and (3)
manufacture products on demand.
3.6 Creating Value Out of Waste
Finally, the retrieved and separated material composites
are used in the SRF to produce a wide variety of products
in space. A participatory co-design workshop was
conducted, which involved the participation of 6
individuals ranging in age and profession. The purpose of
the workshop was to identify humanly desirable objects
that could potentially be manufactured from recycled
space debris in 2070.
As illustrated in Fig. 16, three conceptual objects
emerged from the workshop, each providing a service
that could potentially increase life satisfaction and
subjective well-being on a finite planet. These were
envisioned to exist in a 2070 world of scarcity, where
neither society nor the planet thrive.
According to Maslow [75], humans are perpetually
wanting animals”. This prompted further exploration into
what is needed, when basic needs are met, to increase life
satisfaction and subjective well-being on a finite planet.
As history has shown, people rarely consider what is
enough or what is too much, but instead they have simply
wanted more. This pursuit for short-term gains can be
considered irresponsible if done without any concern for
long-term consequences [76].
Human societies would have ideally transformed from
consumerism to sustainability in 2070. For this to
happen, a shift in values from materialism to post-
materialism, where the latter describes a shift towards
self-expression and quality of life [77], would ultimately
require changes in thinking and behaviour [75].
According to Inglehart [78], a shift towards post-
materialism is already happening today in Western
societies, and is likely to improve subjective well-being.
Also described by Maslow, it is a shift to social inclusion
and needs of love, esteem and achievements [79]. This is
illustrated in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as shown in
Fig. 15. Notwithstanding, in 2070, it is crucial that they
are necessary for human survival on a finite planet.
Figure 15. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [75], adapted
from Balint & Pangaro [80] highlights the focus on
psychological and self-fulfilment needs, with the
exception of transcendence.
Interestingly, the history of humanity is, “often marked,
commemorated and announced by objects[81] as it is
human nature to extend ourselves through objects [82].
This suggests that even in light of a shift towards post-
materialism, it is likely that production of objects will
continue in the indefinite future.
Figure 16. Proposed conceptual objects manufactured
from recycled space debris that increase subjective well-
being: the antenna, trenchcoat and a pair of holographic
3D glasses.
12
This became evident in the objects envisioned by
participants of the co-design workshop. The antenna was
proposed as a desirable object that increases social
inclusion and meets the need of love and belonging. The
rapid advancements in telecommunication is an indicator
of the need for humans to communicate and connect, and
this need is likely to prevail in the future. The trenchcoat,
and more broadly fashion, was considered desirable for
individuals as it is a medium for self-expression, and
meets the need for aesthetics and self-actualisation. Since
the beginning of human civilisation, fashion has
empowered people to truly express themselves. Lastly,
the pair of holographic 3D glasses was proposed as
humanly desirable for meeting the need for esteem and
cognition; and it does this by enabling easy access to all
forms of knowledge ranging from education to
entertainment.
4 DISCUSSION
In this paper, design thinking at a systems level was
employed because the problem of space debris is
considered wicked, as previously described, a term used
to encompass highly complex issues, like climate
change, which cannot be overcome through traditional
solutions because the cause-and-effect relationships are
often uncertain[83]. The multifaceted nature of space
debris has led to many different problem views being
considered viable, which has meant no definitive
formulation of the problem space. This suggests that
solutions are not necessarily true-or-false, but rather,
good-or-bad [84]. As such, it requires a combination of
both intuitive (i.e. divergent) and rational (i.e.
convergent) thinking to establish a mindset that does not
focus on finding the correct problem view or the optimal
solution [84], but rather focuses on embracing needs that
may arise from the problem. Accordingly, design
thinking typically results in innovation that society either
embraces or rejects. If embraced, it can catalyse large-
scale social change.
The process begins by first framing the problem: Craft
clarity [!]. Produce a coherent vision out of messy
problems. Frame it in a way to inspire others and to fuel
ideation.” The problem of space debris is typically
viewed in the near future. In this paper, however, it was
framed in a hypothetical future scenario set in 2070.
Foresight was attempted to frame the problem because it
allowed us to be deterministic rather than opportunistic in
our approach. In other words, it presented an opportunity
to problem solve for a future we would like to see happen.
Despite the prevalent notion that design is about creating
new objects and artefacts; design is in fact an attempt to
change current situations into preferred ones [85].
Space Vulture is a conceptual system, in which we have
suggested piecewise design solutions for interconnected
technical challenges to debris removal that were
identified through research. However, it has not been
presented as a feasible innovation, but instead, to
highlight that the many inherent complexities require
more holistic, integrated, non-linear strategies to deliver
innovation. Thus, Space Vulture is an attempt to connect
the dots using a process of design-thinking to associate
seemingly disparate aspects of debris removal, to deliver
creative yet rigorous innovation.
Over the last decade, the widely adopted human-centred
design (HCD) approach to design thinking has come
under fire for being too human-centric [86]. HCD has
played a large role in creating modern society, but that
has included forming a destructive and exploitative
behaviour in humans towards Earth and its finite
resources. Many argue that because the process of HCD
is architected to focus solely on humans, by definition, it
actively ignores many facets of a problem [87]. Thus, it
is not architected to solve systemic problems that
increasingly threaten modern society. Living in the
Anthropocene, an era in which the future of civilisation
is determined by human activities [75], there is increased
recognition that the relationship between humans and the
planet has to fundamentally change. In other words, it can
no longer be a linear relationship, but rather it has to be
recognised as a complex system of interdependencies
[86]. For this reason, the process of design thinking set
out in this paper takes a values-based life-centred design
(LCD) approach, which goes beyond HCD by factoring
in the wider impacts of design on society and the planet.
LCD takes cognisance of the fact that humans can be
considered a medium to integrate sustainability and the
HCD process [85]. In doing so, we recognised that debris
removal is not merely extraterrestrial housekeeping [88];
but instead, a challenge that requires fundamental
changes to the way in which human relations with man-
made objects, and the waste they generate, are currently
perceived and dealt with. Herein, space debris was not
considered merely waste, but instead perceived as
valuable finite material that could potentially be reused
to meet human needs without further degrading the
natural environment. Accordingly, the Space Vulture
system design demonstrates a move towards a circular
economy production system in order to meet the needs of
current and future generations.
As demonstrated in efforts to tackle ocean plastics,
designing circular waste systems have proven to be
effective at creating multi-scale incentive for a global
audience to collectively take action. Ocean plastics have
been recycled and reused in manufacturing to produce
goods ranging from household items to clothing and
accessories [89]. As is currently the case for debris
removal, technological and managerial innovation
13
originally dominated the ocean plastics space, which
resulted in solutions-based approaches to plastic waste
prevention and monitoring [90]. In recent years, however,
values-based approaches to plastic waste transformation
and collection spurred global action, most likely because
such innovations operate at multiple scales and across
multiple industries. Today, there are over 30 start-ups and
small-medium enterprises (SMEs) that capture and
recycle plastic waste, which is then used in
manufacturing of goods [89]. The example of oceans
plastic suggests a circular space waste system in 2070 is
not farfetched. The example highlights the potential for
society to change provided there are incentives.
5 CONCLUSION
Herein, this paper demonstrates a values-based life-
centred design-thinking process for understanding and
identifying multi-scale innovations to tackle wicked
problems like space debris. It integrates a combination of
divergent and convergent thinking tools, but rather than
focusing solely on human needs, it is implemented at a
systems level in order to embrace human needs without
exploiting Earth. Modern society is plagued with wicked
problems ranging from climate change to fighting for
human rights. These problems demand critical analysis of
the current reality, and reflection on the roots of the
problem including consumerism and human-nature
interdependencies. As is the underlying notion of this
paper, the perception of the problem frames possible
solutions. If, as is the case today, current thinking,
systems and tools are considered satisfactory to tackle
space debris, a blind eye is turned on the human
dimension, namely behaviour, and the wickedness of the
problems emerging from the disconnect between humans
and the planet. In other words, the critical aspects of
humanity, and the threat to life on Earth because of
human activities, are largely ignored. In reality, however,
humans play an important role in the process by which
innovation happens. In future, therein, life-centred
design-thinking at a systems level remains a flexible
process that can evolve with the wicked problem,
providing new angles to view the problem. The outcome
will be multi-scale innovations that are technically
feasible, economically viable, humanly desirable and
inherently sustainable.
6 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The authors would like to thank especially Dr. Tibor
Balint and Dr. Chandramohan George for their
continuous support and providing their expertise and
technical guidance in the development. The authors
would also thank the module leads of the XY module, Dr
Marco Aurisicchio, Dr. Chandramohan George and Dr.
Maria Jose Apud Bell as well as all tutors and guest
speakers of the faculty of the Dyson School of Design
Engineering at the Imperial College London and the
School of Design at the Royal College of Art involved in
the XY module.
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