Tens of millions of pieces of space junk have accumulated around Earth after more than six decades of humans launching objects out of the atmosphere—expanding our litter problem into the cosmos. A new Long Beach startup, however, is looking to help tackle that issue on its way to achieving its grander plans of mining 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, both of whom live in Long Beach, as well as Chief Financial Officer Freyr Thor last year.
“We’re developing technology for object capture and control,” Schmidgall told the Business Journal. “Initial utilization for that … is cleaning up space debris. Our long-term goal is to scale that technology to deep space resource acquisition.”
The company is still in its infancy, with only 11 employees and a small office space inside the Aeroplex building on the south end of Long Beach Airport. The company flew under the radar until its operational launch in March, when hiring began and the team jumped right into the design and testing stages for its vehicle, dubbed Arachne, which Schmidgall described as a “big space arcade claw.”
The vehicle itself will be a base satellite bus designed by ExLabs, which will have standard guidance, navigation and control systems. The robotic claw will sit on top of the vehicle as a payload, Schmidgall said. When the system approaches an object in space, the claw will wrap around it, allowing thrusters to guide 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 debris capture mission sometime in 2027.
“We don’t know when we would be launching an asteroid capture mission,” Schmidgall said. “But we intend to do that by the end of the decade if all goes well.”
“It’s a win-win,” Schmidgall added, noting the company can “do good and clean up the mess that is being made” while it hones its technology for future endeavors.
Since the late ’50s, humans have successfully launched over 6,300 rockets and put more than 14,450 satellites into Earth’s orbit, according to the European Space Agency. During that same time, there have been more than 630 explosions, collisions and other unplanned events that have caused objects to split apart or fragment.
As a result, there are more than 32,500 objects 50 centimeters or larger that have been cataloged and are being 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 could still do tremendous damage as they hurdle more than 15,600 miles per hour through space.
Because the ultimate goal of ExLabs 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 scientific equipment.
The reason for the focus on larger pieces of debris is two-fold, 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 allow the technology to be more easily scaled up for asteroids.
“We’re building a vehicle that will be the largest spacecraft on the market,” Schmidgall said, noting it would be four or five times larger than the next largest vehicle they know to be in development. He noted the first vehicles will be about one-third the size of ExLabs’ endgame.
Ultimately, Schmidgall said the company has the ambitious goal of creating a 100-ton vehicle, which would only be able to launch aboard SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Glenn super heavy lift rockets, both of which are still in development.
The plan is for the massive craft to carry out deep space missions for resource acquisition, moving asteroids into stable orbits to allow for the extraction of various minerals such as iron, nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold and magnesium.
Mineral mining off-world is an important step that must be taken to preserve life on Earth, Schmidgall said.
“Removing as much resource extraction terrestrially as we can is the biggest shift that we can possibly make as human society to turn the clock back on environmental destruction,” Schmidgall said. “We see that as a core initiative and we want to align with people who see that as well.”
To help bring its vision to fruition, ExLabs is leveraging government and commercial contracts as well as private venture capital funding, Schmidgall said. Earlier this month, the company announced a $1.7 million contract from SpaceWERX, the innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force, to accelerate the development of autonomous capture and acquisition technology.
“We’ve been very strategic in how we’re approaching fundraising,” Schmidgall said. “We’re not taking contracts that are defined by these agencies. We define the technology, so we’re able to develop [it] the way we want.”
“We don’t want to give away the company to folks that are looking for more short-term gains,” Schmidgall added.
ExLabs is a welcome addition to the Long Beach space scene, especially after the implosion of Virgin Orbit—the first small satellite launch company to call the city home. Mayor Rex Richardson said that, despite Virgin Orbit’s collapse, numerous companies remain motivated to push forward with Long Beach serving as a space hub.
“We have to grow our economy,” Richardson said, adding that it is great when companies such as Rocket Lab and Relativity Space decide to uproot and move to Long Beach. But innovation must also be fostered at home, he said, noting ExLabs’ foundation 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 almost a decade now, said he and Pascual love the city and are excited to grow their company as part of the city’s burgeoning space economy. Part of that growth includes expanding into a 20,000-square foot manufacturing facility near some of the city’s other space firms, he said—hopefully by the end of the year.
“We’ve got our eyes on a particular building that is quite unique, and it would serve our interests pretty well for the next two years of development,” Schmidgall said, noting the firm would move out of its Aeroplex space.
The small staff is currently spread across the U.S., with members of the team residing in Colorado, Florida and Oregon, but Schmidgall said as ExLabs expands, its focus will be hiring local—growth that is expected to really kick in in the first half of next year. Once manufacturing of components and prototypes is underway, Schmidgall said ExLabs will have around 75 employees.
The company already is in talks with nearby learning institutions to establish local hiring programs. With the industry rapidly growing in the city, there is high demand in Long Beach for space sector jobs, Schmidgall noted, which makes it an ideal area to headquarter 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 setting up the foundation of an organization that is going to be here well beyond us.”
“There’s really not a need to try to race to what others may consider finish lines,” Schmidgall added. “It’s a long endeavor and it’s going to take a lot of technology development, a lot of time.”