A rendering of the ELSA-d spacecraft capturing a piece of space junk. (Image Credit: Astroscale)
On March 22nd, Astroscale, a Japan-based space startup, successfully launched ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale), a demonstration mission that intends to clean up orbital debris. The package contains two different payloads. One of them is a servicer satellite for future spacecraft, and the other is a client satellite, which de-orbits debris satellites for customers.
Astroscale’s payload launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying 38 satellites from 18 countries. This is the first time an Astroscale spacecraft reached orbit since its founding in 2013. Previously, the company launched a microsatellite to take measurements of small-scale debris. However, all of the 18 satellites didn’t reach orbit because of a human error in the launch vehicle’s programming.
The spacecraft works by docking onto dead satellites and de-orbiting them into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they burn up. Generally, the mission involves repetitively docking and releasing between the servicer satellite and client satellite, a ferromagnetic plate that helps the servicer with magnetic docking. The mission, controlled from a ground center in the U.K., is expected to last six months. The aim is to demonstrate the servicer satellite’s ability to track and dock its target in a stable orbit and where it’s rotating end-over-end in space.
However, the downside is that the spacecraft cannot capture orbiting inactive satellites. Instead, the plan is for it to seize satellites equipped with compatible docking plates.
Pre-launch tests being performed by the Astrocale team at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in February 2021. (Image Credit: Astroscale)
Over 8,000 metric tons of space debris could damage weather forecasting, telecommunication, and GPS systems. For years, space debris has grown significantly as old satellites and components accumulate in low-Earth orbit until they de-orbit, decay, explode or collide with other debris. This turns into a major problem, especially because they can break up into smaller pieces.
For example, India blew up one of its Earth-orbiting satellites, which posed a danger to the International Space Station by potentially colliding into it.
According to NASA, around 26,000 pieces of space debris are as large as a softball. They orbit at 17,500 mph and could potentially destroy a satellite on impact. Over 500,000 pieces would end a mission because they could impact fuel tanks, protective systems, and spacecraft cabins. Meanwhile, over 100 million pieces are as small as a grain of salt, which could damage a spacesuit, increasing the risk of devastating collisions to spacecraft and crew. NASA also says that removing space junk depends on preventing more build-up.
Other cleanup technologies have been under development for years. In 2016, JAXA launched a 700-meter tether into space to minimize and divert space debris. Then, in 2018, RemoveDebris captured a dummy satellite by wrapping a net around it.
The European Space Agency expects to send a self-destructive robot into orbit by 2025, which was dubbed a space vacuum cleaner. These efforts to remove space debris are becoming increasingly crucial now that private space companies are cluttering low-Earth orbit with satellites.
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