Decades of space exploration have left Earth covered in space junk. They are not minor inconveniences. A functioning satellite, the space shuttle that shuttles astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) all have to dodge through the rubble. Earlier this year, a large hole was discovered in the ISS’ 58-foot-long arm. This is believed to be caused by objects that are too small to track. The incident came just eight months after the ISS avoided another large piece of debris. The Earth Debris Field currently contains 27,000 cataloged objects, from paint shards to spent rocket stages, all of which are investments in space exploration costing millions of dollars. may damage the
“This is probably one of the most important environmental problems of our time,” says Hugh Lewis, a space engineer at the University of Southampton, UK. Like climate change, the problem of space debris stems from humanity’s pollution and abuse of a common resource, in this case the space environment, he says. “This is a technical issue that we created and was caused by our own choices.”
To address this problem, Astroscale Inc., a private company headquartered in Japan, has devised several commercial spacecraft tasked with organizing space. The company, which plans to deliver the world’s first garbage truck to remove a defunct satellite in 2024, today announced that its prototype has completed its first demonstration in space. Experts say one active debris remover isn’t enough to solve the problem, but to protect valuable equipment in space, like satellites that help with everything from weather forecasts to GPS navigation. is an important move.
“These services are under threat,” says Lewis. “The threat is the destruction of the satellite or disruption of service as we have to operate the satellite to avoid space debris.”
Astroscale’s effort is one of the first small steps towards debris removal. Its main mission is ELSA, which stands for “Used Services by Astroscale”. ELSA drags the no longer operating satellite from high altitude into Earth’s natural incinerator, the oxygen-rich atmosphere in Earth’s low orbit. Space cleaners and satellites alike will burn up here before hitting the surface. In March of this year, Astroscale launched a prototype of his ELSA-d (d stands for demonstration) to test its proximity capture technology. It contains two satellites: a chaser and a target that proxies as a mass of wreckage. Each satellite is equipped with a magnetic docking plate so the chaser can latch onto the target.
The satellite pair successfully ran the first of four catch-and-release demos for debris handling today. In this first test, Chaser validated its magnetic capture system by isolating and hooking the target at close range. All the while, ground mission control recalibrated her ELSA-d’s sensors and verified operational procedures. In the coming months, ELSA-d will face increasingly complex challenges, from chasing drifting prey to tracking and pulling free-rolling targets from their flight paths. Her fourth and final test of the ELSA-d represents a full service mission. In this mission, the chaser inspects the target at close range, allowing the human operator to make go-no-go decisions regarding cleanup. In a fiery finale, both the target and catcher are headed into low Earth orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
“Once these technologies are proven and the global community recognizes them, [ELSA] Astroscale’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Lindsay, said: “Hopefully they’ll incorporate that potential into their own plans,” he adds as they prepare their next-generation satellites.
As with any mission, the Astroscale attempt carries the potential risk of failure, but “all things being equal, there is no reason to believe their demonstration would not succeed,” said the university’s co-author. Cosmodynamicist and space environmentalist Moribager said. While no single vehicle can immediately solve the decades-old problem of Austin, Texas, which is not part of the ELSA project, he said ELSA-d is a small but important first step. said. “We need to start something,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of help to start making a real difference.”
Astroscale is optimistic that a series of successful demonstrations will attract new customers, but its cleanup program remains dependent on space entities that choose to pay for its services. With no international organizations or laws mandating space users to clean up after their satellites are scattered, space has become a dumping ground for failed experiments. Earth’s inky backyard is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Sharing a good among multiple countries makes it available to everyone and leaves no one to care for it. The Interagency Space Debris Coordination Committee has prepared a set of international guidelines for managing space debris and minimizing contamination on future missions, but no enforcement mechanism to ensure members comply with them. there is no.
Additionally, the ELSA weighs less than 1 ton (approximately 2,200 pounds) and is built solely to clean up objects that have magnets attached. But the most harmful objects in space are the large rocket boosters that were dumped in the late 1900s and early 2000s. These objects are wildcards. Their velocity, trajectory, and position are difficult to analyze, complicating practical planning for their disposal. They are also very large, weighing nearly 10 tons each. Not only are they too large to collect now, they also might not completely burn up in the atmosphere if thrown toward Earth.
Still, Astroscale’s space sweeper service, focused on small, new satellites launched in mega constellations, is essential to solving huge problems. Companies such as SpaceX and Amazon plan to deploy thousands of satellites over the next few years, and ELSA will be able to collect when those satellites inevitably fail. If the ELSA demonstration is successful, Astroscale hopes that private companies will take the initiative and contract services to install magnetic plates on satellites and dispose of derelict satellites. Already he has one company participating. OneWeb is a UK based company. The organization fitted his newest satellite with his ELSA-compatible docking plate. Additionally, OneWeb gave Astroscale his $3.3 million in funding earlier this year to prepare ELSA-m, a genuine debris removal technology. A commercial version of the space garbage collector, ELSA-m collects multiple decommissioned satellites in a single mission. This significantly reduces costs.
Lindsay predicts the market for aggressive space debris removal will be strong. “People will be ready to pay for this service to remove objects they deem threatening…because they need to protect their investments and assets in space.”
“Technology development is very important,” says Jah, but is also skeptical. Because the global community has not yet quantified the value of removing one he object from the universe. As such, Astroscale cannot advertise exactly how much profit a client will make at the end of service. While morally commendable, “Cleaning up debris to clean it up is not a solid business case,” says Jah. It takes time to develop technology to actively remove debris. It will also take time to lobby regulatory agencies to standardize the hazard definitions of each debris object. “Those things need to be pursued in parallel,” he adds.
A principal engineer and aerodynamicist at Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, Calif., who has not been involved with the Astroscale project, says the cheapest and easiest solution to the debris dilemma is not to create it in the first place. No, says Marlon Sorge. Entities launching spacecraft should reduce the likelihood of mission failure. Because these dead objects will eventually become junk and only add to the growing debris problem. Proactive debris removal like the one offered by Astroscale should be a backup mitigation plan that should be a priority for all space companies.
“Without mitigation, the rest doesn’t make any difference,” says Sorge.
The normal failure rate of satellites can be as high as 40%, depending on the type. Even with his low 2.5% failure rate boasted by Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite constellation, thousands of dead objects will orbit the skies in the next few years. So that level of compliance still needs improvement, he said, Sorge. “But it’s also not realistic to make satellites so reliable that you don’t have dead satellites at all,” he adds.
While businesses come up with solutions, the public can also help. Sorge says it’s easier for individuals to recognize the seriousness of space debris than it was 30 years ago when he first started working in the field. Lewis, Jaar, and Sorge all agree that public support can drive public policy directions. A more nervous public urges governments to enforce good behavior among space users by requiring all space operators to clean up space themselves after every mission. I can. Experts say that consumers are making space sustainability a part of everyday purchasing decisions by questioning whether service providers who trade in space are taking concrete actions towards the prevention and removal of debris. said that it is necessary to consider These small steps can indirectly impact space industry leaders to reduce space pollution.