Could the solution to clear hazardous waste from space, a mini-fridge-sized spaceship with a big magnet, or maybe an orbiting tugboat that sends out a swarm of tentacles to trap a depleted rocket?
If all goes well, projects like these could be the first steps in removing the growing constellation of scrap metal orbiting Earth. There are at least 23,000 pieces of payloads, rocket bodies and other debris over 10 centimeters in length circling the planet, according to NASA estimates, along with 500,000 other smaller objects measuring between 1 and 10 centimeters. These all travel at least 18,000 miles per hour and can stay aloft for decades before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning. In orbit, they pose a risk to commercial communications satellites, scientific and meteorological orbiters, and of course the International space station, which currently houses seven astronauts.
In 2020, two missing satellites missed hitting himself by just 40 feet about 550 miles above Pittsburgh, while a non-operational Russian satellite and an Iridium communications satellite hit in 2009 over Siberia. As a result, national space agencies and commercial companies are preparing to scan space objects before something worse happens. NASA officials recently released a manual on how to avoid accidents for commercial satellite providers, and this month the agency signed an agreement with SpaceX to ensure that both prioritize safety during launches and orbital maneuvers. The deal is a way to ensure that one party’s satellites are not stationed over the other’s launch sites or planned spacecraft trajectories, which could lead to collisions that would generate even more debris. Pentagon could even pay commercial companies by the ton to dispose of space waste, says one recent report in SpaceNews.
On March 22, Astroscale, a Tokyo-based startup collaborating with the Japanese space agency JAXA, launched a magnetic space garbage collector rod called Astroscale End-of-Life Demonstration Services, or ELSA-d. The project consists of two spacecraft. One is a service satellite the size of a 386-pound mini-fridge armed with a magnet. The other is a smaller 37-pound customer satellite, which is shaped like several pizza boxes stacked on top of each other and has a round magnetic plate. Their first flight is a demonstration mission, designed to test how well the larger satellite can hunt and capture the smaller one, which acts as a training target. Both were tied up when they launched, but once all systems have been checked in a few months, the server will release the client into its own orbit. Ground operators will maneuver them to a rendezvous so that the magnet of the larger satellite gets close enough to attach to the plate of the smaller one.
If all goes well with the encounter when the two objects are moving stably, a second phase of the project will involve sending the smaller machine into a tumbling orbit, making it harder to capture. Once again, the bigger satellite will have to find it and grab it with the magnet. This task is more difficult and aims to prove to potential customers that Astroscale can successfully capture debris that moves erratically in space. After this second capture, the two spacecraft will then enter a common orbit and burn harmlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Future versions of the Astroscale system could be used to remove dead satellites from a specific company, or simply to clean up a particularly congested area of space that could threaten a commercial or space agency’s mission. But Astroscale’s solution of using magnets to allow one satellite to grab another will only work if satellite operators attach the company’s magnetic plate to future orbiters, like adding a hitch. trailer for a space tow truck.