Mission to clear space junk using magnets set for launch

A Japanese-made technology aimed at clearing low-Earth orbit of hazardous space debris is about to be put through its paces.

Space junk is a growing problem, with around 9,000 tons of the stuff currently orbiting our planet in millions of pieces. Much of the debris poses a serious threat to functioning satellites that provide important telecommunications services, weather information, and other data for daily life here on terra firma. The human-inhabited International Space Station isn’t free of danger, either, as only last year it was forced to perform a swift maneuver to dodge a piece of junk that could’ve caused a catastrophic accident.

NASA defines space junk as “human-generated objects, such as pieces of spacecraft, tiny flecks of paint from a spacecraft, parts of rockets, satellites that are no longer working, or explosions of objects in orbit flying around in space at high speeds.”

Japan-based Astroscale has developed a system that will use magnets to attract debris before carrying it toward the Earth’s atmosphere where both the satellite and the junk will burn up.

Its first demonstration mission, called ELSA-d, will launch from Kazakhstan on the evening of Sunday, March 21 ET. You can watch it live in the embedded player below.

The test mission will use the main “servicer satellite” and also a “client satellite” that will act as a piece of space junk. Once in low-Earth orbit, the servicer satellite will release the “junk” before attempting a rendezvous procedure using its magnetic docking technology.

The process of catching and releasing will be performed repeatedly over the next six months, with each procedure presenting a greater level of difficulty. The aim of the mission is to confirm the servicer satellite’s ability to locate and dock with targeted pieces of space junk.

Notably, the satellite is not designed to capture pieces of junk that are currently in orbit, but instead satellites deployed in the future that are fitted with special docking plates compatible with Astroscale’s system.

A NASA report published earlier this year highlighted the problem of space-based debris. It said there are currently at least 26,000 pieces of junk “the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit.”

And with more satellites big and small heading to space, the problem is set to worsen unless technology like Astroscale’s starts tackling it.

Indeed, a growing number of companies are developing various junk-busting technologies that include an iodine thruster system, a giant space harpoon, and a collision avoidance process that uses talcum powder and lasers.

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