Artwork of junk in space adapted from cover of E&T February 2018 issue

Space debris-tackling satellites launched into orbit

Image credit: Dreamstime / Rex / Allstars

A rocket carrying satellites designed to tackle space debris launched today after being delayed over the weekend.

Two spacecraft were sent into orbit to demonstrate the technology – a servicer satellite to collect the debris and a client satellite to act as the debris.

They launched from Kazakhstan on a Soyuz rocket today, two days later than planned due to a voltage spike.

It is estimated that around 9,200 tonnes of space debris is in orbit around the Earth comprising 34,000 objects larger than 10cm, 900,000 measuring 1-10cm and 128 million fragments between 1mm and 1cm in size.

Space junk is highly problematic for the industry as it threatens the satellites that form the backbone of many global communication networks.

Debris ranges from paint flecks, nuts, bolts and frozen satellite coolant to astronaut tools and rocket parts.

The European Space Agency estimates that there have been more than 560 break-ups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.

While rocket launches have placed about 10,680 satellites in Earth’s orbit since 1957, around 6,250 of these are still in space, but only 3,700 are still functioning.

The new test will see the servicer satellite chase down the client and latch onto it using magnets. It will then release it so that the experiment can be repeated. It should demonstrate how space junk removal could be implemented in different scenarios, such as when junk is tumbling. It is expected to start major demonstrations in around June or July.

The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d) will be operated from the In-Orbit Servicing Control Centre – National Facility at the Satellite Applications Catapult (SAC) at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire and is the world’s first commercial demonstration debris-removal mission.

Once the experiments have been completed, the satellites are designed to come out of Earth’s orbit and burn up in the atmosphere to prevent them becoming space junk themselves.

Speaking ahead of the launch, UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The removal of hazardous space debris is not only environmentally important but is also a huge commercial opportunity for the UK, with companies like Astroscale leading the way in demonstrating how we can make space safer for everyone.”

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