New Spacecraft, Now In Orbit, Will Demo Space Junk Cleanup
Given the size of space, aerospace companies and governments have felt entitled to keep their trash in orbit. You know, a rocket booster here, a strut there. Unfortunately, everyone has treated low-earth orbit like their own garbage heap for too long, and scientists are starting to worry about collisions and even chain reactions that could make space around the earth too dangerous to use. For this reason, Japan-based Astroscale has developed ELSA-d, a newly launched spaceship that will demonstrate technology for cleaning space around the earth.
ELSA-d, which stands for “End-of-Life Services from Astroscale”, was introduced from Kazakhstan on Monday. Unlike some previous demonstrations, ELSA-d is not designed to summarize all of these small pieces of past missions. Rather, Astroscale hopes to make the ELSA system part of future spacecraft and satellites.
ELSA-d has a magnetic docking mechanism at one end. During the orbit an attempt is made to meet with a simulated “client satellite”. The spaceship will pair with a magnetic disk on the target, showing that it is possible to track satellites in orbit using the ELSA mechanisms. ELSA’s ultimate goal is to connect satellites to this system and then drag them into the atmosphere for disposal.
In the coming months, Astroscale plans to dock and undock the client stand-in several times. The hope is that this shows that the ELSA system can effectively track and dock the target even under less than ideal conditions. Astroscale will use this demo to sell satellite operators for its services. That would apparently require them to build their satellites with the ELSA docking pad right from the start.
Scientists estimate that around 8,000 tons of debris are circling the earth and breaking up into dangerous little pieces. NASA estimates that at least 500,000 pieces of space debris are large enough to complete a mission if they hit a satellite or spaceship. About 26,000 of them are bigger than a softball and all travel at extremely high speeds. Something like this, acting on a spaceship, could reduce it to tiny pieces of space debris, making the problem worse. And it can only be a matter of time before something like this happens. NASA was even forced to relocate the ISS several times to avoid possible impact.
With SpaceX, Amazon, and others planning to deploy mega-structures of several thousand units, the ability to remove damaged or decayed satellites from orbit could be in great demand. Astroscale is far from testing space debris removal technology. ESA is working with ClearSpace SA on a giant claw, and NASA has been studying a flexible spacecraft that could wrap debris.