By Saori Ikarashi
Space startup Astroscale Holdings (Sumida Ward, Tokyo) will launch a satellite on March 20 on a test mission to remove satellite fragments and other types of space debris. Space debris must be collected to ensure stable satellite operations, but technologies are yet to be established and international rules are still being created to address this ongoing problem. The success of the demonstration test will bring the commercialization of debris collection one step closer to becoming a reality.
Space debris includes rocket parts and satellites no longer in use. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), more than 20,000 pieces of debris are orbiting the earth, marking a twofold increase over the past two decades. There is an urgent need to take countermeasures because space debris could damage the global positioning system (GPS) and telecommunications if it hits satellites in operation.
The demonstration satellite will be carried into space by a Russian Soyuz rocket, that will lift off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. The satellite consists of a master unit that removes debris and a slave unit that works as a piece of mock debris. The master unit will move close to the slave unit embedded with a metal plate and capture it by using magnets. The demonstration test will be conducted multiple times for six months. Later, the satellite will lower its altitude over a few years to burn both master and slave units in the atmosphere.
Astroscale is aiming to commercialize its unique debris removal service in the first half of the 2020s. The company will make contracts with satellite business operators, central governments, and space development organizations and be compensated for removing debris. U.K. communications satellite startup OneWeb has already launched a satellite carrying Astroscale’s [magnetic docking] plate. Also, Astroscale will sign a contract with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to develop technology to collect the second stage of Japan’s mainstay H2A rocket.
Removing debris is a pressing issue for satellite business operators. Recently, more and more companies are linking many small satellites together to increase communications speed and exchange image data. U.S. research firm SpaceWorks predicts up to 2,400 small satellites will be launched between the years 2020 and 2024. This means the amount of debris will also increase.
Companies in Japan and overseas are competing to develop technologies to remove debris. As early as fiscal 2021, ALE (Minato Ward, Tokyo), a developer of artificial shooting stars, will demonstrate a technology that uses an electrically conductive tether to drop debris into the atmosphere by harnessing the power generated by the interference between the electric current and the earth’s magnetic field. Also, SKY Perfect JSAT is studying a technology that irradiates debris with a special laser, thereby changing the orbit of the debris and making it descend.
In January 2020, Tethers Unlimited of the United States successfully demonstrated a technology that removes debris by using a tether. The European Space Agency (ESA) is aiming to demonstrate a technology that captures debris by using robotic arms in 2025. It has signed a contract with Swiss space startup ClearSpace for this purpose.
The development of international rules regarding space debris will be a major issue going forward. The guidelines created by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) says debris “should enter the atmosphere and be burned within 25 years from the end of the mission or should change orbit so as not to interfere with other satellites” and “the amount debris released during [satellite] operations should be limited.”
But the IADC guidelines are not legally binding and are not fully implemented. Also, it is unclear who is responsible for debris. National governments around the world are discussing penalties for violation of the guidelines and shortening the debris disposal period from the current “25 years” from the end of the mission.
By the end of fiscal 2021, Japan plans to create its own rules on debris for satellites being operated by the government. Private companies are getting closer to commercializing debris removal, and there are high hopes that public-private efforts will lead the creation of rules, too.