Japan’s space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has selected space company Astroscale as its partner for the first ever mission specifically to remove space junk.
The large piece of junk is an upper stage of an old Japanese rocket and success could open the way for commercial space debris remediation.
What’s called the JAXA Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration project (CRD2) comprises two phases, with the first awarded to Astroscale and to be conducted in 2022-23.
Astroscale’s part will be to manufacture, launch and operate a satellite that will survey the rocket body and the debris environment.
The objective is to find out more about its movement and the surrounding debris to facilitate safe and successful removal by phase two.
Should Astroscale be awarded the phase two contract, and there would appear to be no reason why it wouldn’t, it will have until 31 March 2026 — the end of Japan’s fiscal year — to de-orbit the derelict upper stage.
“The data obtained in Phase I of CRD2 is expected to reinforce the dangers of existing debris and the necessity to remove them," said Astroscale founder and chief executive Nobu Okada.
“Debris removal is still a new market and our mission has always been to establish routine debris removal services in space in order to secure orbital sustainability for the benefit of future generations. The international community is growing more aware of the risks of space debris and we are committed more than ever to turning this potential market into a reality.”
Okada founded Astroscale in 2013 with the sole purpose of cleaning up orbital space. He sees this as necessary for long-term sustainable activity in orbit.
The growing problem of space junk has long been recognised and is increasing as more satellites are placed in orbit by more nations and companies.
Risk of collision in space is growing. Just last month two derelict satellites, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment (GGSE-4), came perilously close to colliding, missing each other by a matter of metres.
Any collision would produce a field of fast moving space debris that could endanger other satellites.
The worst possible outcome would be a chain reaction thatt produced so much debris in low-Earth orbit that space was rendered inaccessible, potentially indefinitely.
Okada, who made his money in IT, developed a passion for space when attending Space Camp in the US as a student. In 2013, he attended a space conference in Germany at which space junk was discussed in detail.
Unimpressed that no one had a firm plan to do something, he went straight out and founded Astroscale.
Others are also interested in commercial debris removal. Last December, the European Space Agency awarded Swiss start-up ClearSpace a contract to remove another derelict rocket upper stage by 2025.
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