Satellites tremble as Japan's 'space junk' collection mission ends in failure

There’s a lot of space junk orbiting Earth and it could make future space travel impossible. Unfortunately, one of the few projects focused on cleaning it up just failed.

Over 100 million pieces of space junk orbit Earth, 29,000 of which are big enough to cause major damage. Bits of retired satellites, metal expelled from rockets, and abandoned equipment make up this ominous cloud of debris. The danger is already very real. In 2009, American and Russian satellites collided and created thousands of large pieces of rubble. The International Space Station (ISS) had to pull an avoidance maneuver around that debris two years later.

Space junk has no easy cleanup, and it’s a problem that’s worsening exponentially. Every time satellites collide, they create debris that then crashes with other debris to create even more debris, and so on. If these collisions progress unchecked, the amount of debris in low Earth orbit will make spaceflight unfeasible.

Agencies around the world acknowledge this problem and a few have organized missions to combat it. In June, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced Clean Space, an initiative to remove large objects of debris from orbit by using a giant net gun and robotic arm to snag pieces out of orbit.

A few weeks later the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) described its comparatively simple and cost-effective plan to magnetically “pull” debris out of orbit with an electromagnetic cable. The debris would then be directed toward Earth were it would burn up on reentry into the atmosphere.

Today, JAXA announced its experimental method failed.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” leading researcher Koichi Inoue told the Agence France-Presse (AFP). “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

JAXA had planned to test the technique on an ISS-bound cargo ship that had launched in December, according to the AFP, but a slew of malfunctions left JAXA technicians pressed for time. A week ago the agency admitted its cable was misbehaving. The cargo ship re-entered Earth’s atmosphere early Monday, effectively ending the experiment.

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