Japan firm wants to clear orbiting swarm of space junk

ASTROSCALE: A prototype of the Astroscale Holdings ELSA-d in-orbit debris capture and removal craft displayed at the company's Japan unit office in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2018. Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg

As the satellite industry booms, a Japan-based venture is working to prevent space-debris collisions that could paralyze transportation, defense and telecommunications systems.

Astroscale Holdings Inc. is preparing to rendezvous with, capture and dock a test satellite early next year to show how its technology can help clear orbiting junk, said Miki Ito, general manager of Astroscale's Japan unit, in an interview.

The company is competing in a niche that has drawn urgent attention and funding from companies and governments including those in the U.S., Japan, Singapore and the U.K. The venture has raised about $103 million, including money from Japan's state-backed INCJ Ltd., as it vies with rivals to invent an affordable way to prevent a chain-reaction of collisions known as the Kessler effect.

Astroscale said its mission will be the world's first in-orbit debris capture and removal demonstration using its rendezvous and magnetic capture mechanisms. In the test run, "chaser" and "target" modules will rocket into orbit, then separate. The chaser will then attempt to capture the target once in a steady state and again when it is tumbling. Once safely docked, the chaser and target will power back toward Earth, burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere.

Given the difficulty of fixing satellites in orbit, there is usually no choice but to bring malfunctioning craft down, said Ito, who worked on microsatellite projects at the Next Generation Space System Technology Research Association before becoming president of Astroscale Japan, then general manager this month.

Astroscale is also planning to raise its workforce to 100 from 60 as it expands to the U.S. and other global markets.

18K mph space collisions

With an estimated 750,000 bits of old satellites and rockets circling the Earth at about 18,000 miles per hour, a collision could instantly shatter a multimillion dollar satellite, as portrayed in the Academy Award-winning 2013 movie "Gravity." Worse, a chain reaction of destruction could render entire bands of low-earth orbit un-navigable for satellites.

There have already been some close calls. In 2009, the U.S.-launched Iridium33 satellite collided with Russia's Kosmos-2251, sending thousands of new bits of debris hurtling through space. The crash didn't immediately trigger other collisions, but the junk is still up there and may yet do so.

Still, the number of satellites being flung into space is soaring. Commercial launches under 500 kilograms are forecast to jump tenfold to more than 5,600 in the 10 years to 2027, compared with the previous decade, consulting firm Euroconsult estimates in its report on prospects for the small satellite market.

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