Irvine startup seeks ‘space sustainability’

Turion Space has launched the world’s first commercial satellite dedicated to tracking space debris and satellites.

It’s getting busy up there. Ten years ago, about 1,000 satellites orbited Earth. Today, there are about 10,000, and it’s predicted companies and governments will launch 2,500 satellites every year for the next decade.

Now, an Irvine entrepreneur is stepping up to keep this orbital superhighway safe.

In June, Turion Space launched the world’s first commercial satellite dedicated to tracking satellites and space debris.

“Space sustainability is core to our ethos, and with our new generation of ‘Droid’ satellites, we’re going to solve debris by 2030,” says former SpaceX scientist Ryan Westerdahl, who co-founded Turion in 2020.

The startup plans to use its tracking data to warn satellite owners of possible collisions and help move their satellites out of harm’s way – acting like tow trucks in space. It also will deorbit some of the 3,000 nonfunctioning satellites that add to the space clutter.

The mission is critical to our daily lives, as the thousands of satellites help us communicate, navigate and study the Earth.

“There’s so much innovation happening here in Irvine. This is where we want to be.” – Ryan Westerdahl

“There’s estimated to be a million objects – satellites and large debris – in orbit that need watching, and only about 48,000 of them are being tracked,” Westerdahl says. “We need to do a better job.”

Irvine’s space industry

Turion follows in the footsteps of several aerospace companies that call Irvine home.

SpaceX, the world’s most successful aerospace company, has offices in town; Terran Orbital, the world’s leading provider of nano- and microsatellites, occupies four floors at 400 Spectrum; and satellite-maker Iceye operates its U.S. headquarters and mission-control center in Irvine.

“There’s so much innovation happening here in Irvine,” Westerdahl says. “This is where we want to be.”

To date, Turion has raised $8.5 million in venture capital and won $3 million in contracts from NASA and the U.S. Space Force – with an estimated $10 million in new contracts coming this year.

Westerdahl says the company of 25, which designs and builds its own satellites in the Irvine Spectrum District, already has surpassed larger firms seeking to do the same thing.

“Other companies are trying to do this,” he says, “but we’re the first in space.”

Turion’s next mission: Mining asteroids

Turion Space already is preparing for its next big mission – mining asteroids. “Asteroid mining is going to drive humanity’s expansion into space,” says Turion CEO Ryan Westerdahl. “And we’re on the front of that wave.” One asteroid, called 1986 DA, holds enough platinum metals to fetch an estimated $233 billion a year for 50 years, according to NASA. And Turion Space is mastering the skills needed to mine it someday. What are some of those skills? “Making observations, moving things around in space, deorbiting space debris – those are all things we’re doing,” he says.