Tens of millions of pieces of space debris have accumulated around Earth after more than six decades of humans launching objects out of the atmosphere, extending our litter problem into the cosmos. However, a new Long Beach startup wants to help tackle that problem on its way to achieving its larger plans to mine asteroids for resources.
After about two years of planning, ExLabs was officially co-founded last year by CEO Matthew Schmidgall and Chief Science Officer Miguel Pascual, who both live in Long Beach, as well as Chief Financial Officer Freyr Thor last year.
“We are developing technology for capturing and controlling objects,” Schmidgall told the Business Journal. “The first use for that… is cleaning up space debris. Our long-term goal is to scale that technology to the acquisition of deep space resources.”
The company is still in its infancy, with just 11 employees and a small office space in the Aeroplex building on the south side of Long Beach Airport. The company flew under the radar until operational launch in March, when hiring began and the team jumped straight into the design and testing phases for its vehicle, dubbed Arachne, which Schmidgall described as a “big space arcade claw.”
The vehicle itself will be a basic satellite bus designed by ExLabs, which will have standard guidance, navigation and control systems. The robotic claw will sit on top of the vehicle like a load, Schmidgall said. When the system approaches an object in space, the claw will wrap around it, allowing thrusters to redirect it into a new orbit.
Schmidgall said the company plans to move into prototype development by the end of the year. The company expects to send components into space for testing in early 2025, with the first mission to capture debris sometime in 2027.
“We don’t know when we would launch an asteroid capture mission,” Schmidgall said. “But we plan to do that by the end of the decade, if all goes well.”
“It’s a win-win situation,” Schmidgall added, noting that the company can “do good and clean up the mess” as it hones its technology for future endeavors.
Since the late 1950s, humans have successfully launched more than 6,300 rockets and put more than 14,450 satellites into orbit, according to the European Space Agency. In that same time, there have been more than 630 explosions, collisions, and other unplanned events that have split or fragmented objects.
As a result, there are more than 32,500 objects 50 centimeters or larger that have been cataloged and tracked by the Combined Force Space Component Command at Vandenberg Space Force Base. According to ESA, there are more than 131 million smaller man-made objects, including paint flecks, that can still cause massive damage if they fly through space at more than 25,000 kilometers per hour.
Because ExLabs’ ultimate goal is to be able to maneuver much larger asteroids, the focus of debris removal will be on the largest 10% of objects, Schmidgall explained, including rocket bodies and old science equipment.
The reason for the focus on larger pieces of debris is twofold, Schmidgall said: Those objects pose the greatest risk to other satellites and spacecraft, which is dangerous as human occupation of space increases; and it will make the technology easier to scale up for asteroids.
“We’re building a vehicle that will be the largest spacecraft on the market,” Schmidgall said, noting that it would be four or five times larger than the next largest vehicle they know is under development. He noted that the first vehicles will be about a third the size of ExLabs’ endgame.
Ultimately, Schmidgall said the company has an ambitious goal of making a 100-ton vehicle that can only be launched aboard SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Glenn superheavy rockets, both of which are still under development.
The plan is for the massive craft to conduct deep space missions for resource acquisition, launching asteroids into stable orbits to enable the extraction of various minerals such as iron, nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold and magnesium.
Mineral mining off-world is an important step to take to preserve life on Earth, Schmidgall said.
“Removing as much Earth’s resources as we can is the biggest shift we can possibly make as a human society to turn back the clock on environmental destruction,” Schmidgall said. “We see that as a core initiative and we want to connect with people who see that too.”
To help realize its vision, ExLabs leverages government and commercial contracts and private venture capital financing, Schmidgall said. Earlier this month, the company announced a $1.7 million contract from SpaceWERX, the innovation arm of the US Space Force, to accelerate the development of autonomous capture and acquisition technology.
“We’ve been very strategic in the way we approach fundraising,” Schmidgall said. “We do not accept contracts drawn up by these agencies. We define the technology so that we can develop [it] as we want.”
“We don’t want to give the company away to people looking for more short-term profits,” Schmidgall added.
ExLabs is a welcome addition to Long Beach’s space scene, especially after the implosion of Virgin Orbit – the first small satellite launch company that called the city home. Mayor Rex Richardson said that despite Virgin Orbit’s collapse, numerous companies remain motivated to continue with Long Beach as a space hub.
“We need to grow our economy,” Richardson said, adding that it’s great when companies like Rocket Lab and Relativity Space decide to uproot and move to Long Beach. But innovation should also be encouraged at home, he said, pointing to the establishment of ExLabs in the city.
“We’re on the ground floor of something really special here,” he said of ExLabs.
Schmidgall, who has lived in Long Beach for nearly a decade now, said he and Pascual love the city and are excited to grow their business as part of the city’s burgeoning aerospace economy. Part of that growth includes expanding to a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near some of the city’s other aerospace companies, he said — hopefully by the end of the year.
“We have our eye on a particular building that is quite unique, and it would serve our interests quite well for the next two years of development,” Schmidgall said, noting that the company would be moving out of its Aeroplex space.
The small workforce is currently scattered across the US, with members of the team living in Colorado, Florida and Oregon, but Schmidgall said as ExLabs expands, the focus will be on hiring local growth that is expected to really kick off in the near future. first half of next year. Once component and prototype fabrication is underway, Schmidgall said ExLabs will have about 75 employees.
The company is already in talks with nearby educational institutions to set up local recruitment programs. With industry growing rapidly in the city, Long Beach is in high demand for aerospace jobs, Schmidgall noted, making it an ideal area to base ExLabs as it plans for the distant future.
“This is a multi-generational initiative and projects company,” Schmidgall said. “We see our responsibility here as laying the foundations of an organization that will be far beyond us here.”
“There’s really no need to try and race to what others might consider finish lines,” added Schmidgall. “It’s a long undertaking and it will take a lot of technological development, a lot of time.”