Astroscale to test space junk cleanup tech with ‘ELSA-d’ launch in 2021

Technology that could help humankind tackle the growing problem of space debris will receive an orbital test early next year.

The “End-of-Life Services by Astroscale Demonstration” (ELSA-d) mission will be launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March 2021, officials from Japan-based Astroscale announced last week.

“We now have the start in our sights,” said ELSA-d project manager Seita Iizuka in a statement. “The ELSA-d program demonstrates complex and innovative capabilities that will help satellite operators realize options for their post-mission disposal strategies and establish Astroscale as the global leader in the on-orbit service market.”

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ELSA-d consists of two spacecraft that launch together – one 385-lb. (175 kilograms) “Servicer” and a 37-lb. (17 kg) “customer”. The servicer has rendezvous technology and a magnetic sensing mechanism, both of which will be trained during the time of the mission in orbit.

“The servicer will repeatedly release and dock with the customer in a series of technical demonstrations to demonstrate the ability to find and dock debris,” Astroscale wrote in the ELSA-d Mission Press. “The demonstrations include customer search, customer inspection, customer rendezvous and docking without wobbling and wobbling.”

The main objective is to demonstrate technologies that can be used to remove dead or dying satellites and other pieces of space debris from orbit. It is already orbiting much of the debris on our planet, and the number is expected to increase as launch and satellite development costs continue to fall, and companies assemble huge broadband constellations in near-earth orbit.

Mankind must therefore seriously start tackling the debris problem, say many experts. A number of potential strategies could be used including ensuring that spent rocket stages fall back to Earth shortly after launch; Every satellite must have a propulsion system that enables it to stay away from possible collisions. and equipping spacecraft with long drag-increasing straps that will crash them quickly when their lifespan is up.

Active debris removal will also be an important part of the picture if Astroscal’s plans bear fruit. And the Japanese company is not alone in its ambitions. Last year, for example, the University of Surrey-led RemoveDebris project demonstrated a dramatic capture technique in which a harpoon was fired at a target while zooming around the earth.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for other people’s lives. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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