Japan leads the way in clearing space debris
A space rocket blazing a trail across the sky is a fantastic sight. Yet, as it drops its boosters, have you ever asked, “I wonder where that space debris will go?” Tokyo-based company Astroscale Japan Inc. will tackle that problem by launching the first-ever space junk clearing named the ADRAS-J Mission.
You would not believe how cluttered the Earth’s orbit is nowadays. Our planet’s outer surface contains discarded space equipment, broken and active satellites, and other garbage that could interfere with ongoing and future space missions. As a result, these objects could prevent the world from enjoying satellite services like GPS and internet connectivity.
This article will expound on Japan’s latest crusade against space junk. Later, I will elaborate on the risks and challenges of clearing orbital refuse.
How will Japan clear space debris?
The Mainichi news website shared details on the ADRAS-J satellite and its mission. It says the former will collect data on space debris while Astroscale Japan develops a mechanical arm to move toward the Earth’s atmosphere.
Most objects burn in the atmosphere as they compress air and plummet at high velocities. Astroscale may send its ELSA-d satellites to perform the actual clearing operations.
In 2021, DW shared details regarding these satellites. It said the first is a 175 kg servicer satellite, and the latter is a client satellite weighing 17 kg. Here’s how it works:
- The servicer has “proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism” to remove defunct satellites and other large pieces of debris.
- Meanwhile, the client satellite has a ferromagnetic plate that docks onto a space object.
- Then, the servicer descends into the Earth with the client and its space garbage until they disintegrate in the atmosphere.
However, we must be careful in dropping objects into the Earth. Otherwise, it may collide with operational satellites or be too large to disintegrate in our atmosphere completely.
Collision with other orbiting objects could set an unpredictable chain reaction that could damage other installations. Alternatively, it may trigger the Kessler Syndrome.
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It is when space objects form into a larger aggregate, making it harder to eliminate. That is why the ASDRAS-J satellite’s mission is so important.
It gathers as much information as possible so that another satellite can start clearing operations as soon as possible. Soon, Astroscale Japan might pioneer a new space junk clearing industry.
Nowadays, more countries send satellites to space for research, global positioning, and other services. They would need companies like Astroscale to ensure their satellites have a clear launch and orbital path.
Why should we clear space debris?
I mentioned a few reasons for clearing space junk, but you should see how Astroscale’s founder and CEO explained this issue. In 2021, Astroscale founder and CEO Nobu Okada explained his company’s goal.
“I believe the space debris issue is one of the most pressing and important issues in the world today,” Okada told DW. “Some might argue that we have enough problems here on Earth, like climate change and all the other environmental issues….”
“…but it is because of satellite services that we are able to understand the health of our planet. Satellites are the reason why we are able to measure, monitor, and manage climate change, and they enable us to predict the future of the Earth. Environmental protection on Earth cannot exist without orbital protection in space.”
Okada acknowledges clearing space debris is a monumental challenge, but his company is committed to achieving it. “There are three key challenges to solving the space debris issue: developing technology, informing the international and domestic policies, and identifying a business case.”
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“On the technological challenges, building a satellite, let alone one that can rendezvous, dock, and then safely remove a defunct satellite from orbit, is already a significant technical challenge in itself.”
In 2021, Astroscale Japan proved it could remove space junk, receiving multiple awards. Its website says it earned the Minister of State for Space Policy Award and a spot in TIME’s List of the 100 Most Innovative Companies.
“Overall, the ELSA-d mission is very complex, and these kinds of captures have never been attempted before,” Okada admitted, “but we hope these technical demonstrations will show commercial and government customers that we have the technical capabilities to provide this service.”
It seems Japan will bring its culture of cleaning up after a football match into outer space. Tokyo-based Astroscale will soon launch ADRAS-J on its first space debris clearing operation in 2023.
This unique space mission may pave the way for more responsible space exploration. It may urge other countries to clear their messes so everyone can safely journey to the stars.
After all, China and the United States plan to elevate humanity into an interstellar species by forming space economies. Learn more about that endeavor and other digital trends at Inquirer Tech.