Japan Is Combatting The Space Debris Problem 

A satellite being operated by Japanese company Astroscale has successfully located a 15-year-old piece of space junk and has been able to capture an image of it. 

The piece of space junk itself has been identified as a discarded rocket segment that is measured to be about 36 feet by 15 feet with an estimated mass of three tons. This marks the first time a space agency has been able to get so close to such a large piece of space debris. 

Astroscale is also working on developing a business model that would offer to remove space debris from Earth’s orbit. However, the current mission is to test out the satellite’s sensors to get a better idea of what kind of software they will need to safely carry out these operations. 

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The firm has stated that they’re hoping to start actively pulling space debris out of our orbit within the next couple of years. Space junk and sustainable use of space has been an ongoing discussion for some years now. 

Since the beginning of the space age in 1957, millions of pieces of space junk have accumulated in the atmosphere. The debris itself ranges from flecks of paint to fully abandoned rockets, like the one Astroscale was able to take a picture of. 

Space debris in general poses a major risk to other active and functioning satellites that we use to communicate and monitor the planet. The one discovered from Astroscale is a major hazard due to its large size. 

“The one in the new image came from Japan’s H-IIA launch vehicle, which lofted a CO2-measuring spacecraft called Gosat, in 2009. The upper-section of the rocket ejected Gosat at an altitude of roughly 600km. 

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But whereas more modern rockets make sure all their parts come back down to Earth soon after a flight, this H-IIA stage stayed up there. And it’s far from being alone,” according to Jonathan Amos for the BBC

According to the European Space Agency, 2,220 rocket bodies exist in orbit today. Astroscale is calling its current mission Adras-J, or Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan. 

The current plan is to spend the next few weeks taking more images and gathering information on the rocket segment, specifically the condition of the structure, its spin rate, and its spin axis. Adras-J will try to fully fly around the rocket body

“The activity will involve firing thrusters at the body in a direction opposite to its spin motion. The pressure of the thrusters’ plume ought to decelerate the rotation rate,” wrote Amos. 

“A number of companies around the world are developing technologies similar to Astroscale. Experts say that to prevent a cascade of collisions in orbit, it’s imperative space-faring nations start removing several large pieces of junk every year.”