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Japanese satellite chases down space junk

There’s a growing problem of junk cluttering up the space beyond our planet. Known as space debris, it consists of broken satellites, discarded rocket parts, and other tiny pieces of metal and other materials that move around the planet, often at extremely high speeds. Space debris has threatened the International Space Station and impacted China’s space station, and junk from space has even fallen onto a house in the U.S. recently.

Many scientists have called for greater environmental protections of space, but how to deal with all the existing debris is an open problem. Much of the debris is hard to capture because it is oddly shaped or traveling at great speed. Cleanup suggestions have involved using magnets, or nets, or lasers. But now a system from Japanese company Astroscale has taken an up-close image of a piece of space debris it has been chasing down, and it could help make future cleanup easier.

Image of a piece of space debris seen from Astroscale's ADRAS-J satellite.
Image of a piece of space debris seen from Astroscale’s ADRAS-J satellite. Astroscale

Astroscale’s Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) satellite captured this image of a discarded rocket upper stage from several hundred meters away. The idea of the ADRAS-J system is to inspect pieces of debris and to take images of them to determine their movements and condition, in order to help understand how debris is moving for future removal operations.

“Pics or it didn’t happen,” Astroscale wrote on X. “Behold, the world’s first image of space debris captured through rendezvous and proximity operations during our ADRAS-J mission.”

Making the approach to a piece of debris required the use of cameras and algorithms, the BBC reported, in order to be sure that the satellite did not impact the debris. A collision between pieces of debris or debris and an active satellite would create even more smaller debris, pieces which could be spread across an orbit, hence the concerns about the possibility of satellite collisions.

The ADRAS-J system will next attempt to make an orbit of the debris, with future missions planning to use robotic arms to grab debris pieces. Once a debris piece has been grabbed, it could be disposed of, for example by using the satellite’s thrusters to pull it down out of orbit so it burns up in the atmosphere.

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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