Garbage flying around the Earth

Japan launching fishnet space junk collector

Image credit: European Space Agency

Japan is to trial a space junk collector which will be launched on a cargo spaceship headed to the International Space Station (ISS).

The vessel is called “Kounotori” (or stork in Japanese) and is set to blast off from the southern island of Tanegashima around 13.30 (GMT time) today.

The space junk collector takes the form of a tether developed by Japanese fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo which will be used to pull space junk out of the orbit of Earth.

The device, which is 10 years in the making, is known as an electrodynamic tether and is constructed from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminium.

It is designed to be connected to dangerous pieces of space junk which are then swung into the lower orbit of Earth, eventually resulting in the junk burning up in the atmosphere.

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, space junk has slowly accumulated due to cast off parts of rockets during spaceship launches and old, disused satellites.

It is now estimated that more than 100 million pieces of space junk orbit our planet, which could cause issues for functioning satellites and future space launches.

A spokesman at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said it wants to use the junk collector system regularly from the middle of the next decade.

“If we are successful in this trial, the next step will be another test attaching one tip of the tether to a targeted object,” he said.

Katsuya Suzuki, engineer for Nitto Seimo, told news agency AFP: “The tether uses our fishnet plaiting technology, but it was really tough to intertwine the very thin materials.

“The length of the tether this time is 700 metres, but eventually it’s going to need to be 5,000 to 10,000 metres-long to slow down the targeted space junk.”

The spaceship will be placed on the back of an H-IIB rocket and will also be carrying supplies to the ISS like drinking water and batteries.

In April, Japan abandoned its Hitomi satellite, designed to study supermassive black holes, because its solar array paddles were thought to have broken off.

In November, artists Nick Ryan and Cath Le Couteur aimed to draw the public’s attention to the problem of space junk by translating the real-time motion of debris into a musical piece. 

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