New effort to clean up unwanted space gears up for launch

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New effort to clean up unwanted space gears up for launch


A demonstration mission to test an idea for cleaning up space debris is expected to be launched early Monday morning from a launch site in Kazakhstan. Known as ELSA-d, the mission will showcase technology that could help capture space debris, the millions of orbital debris that float above Earth.
The more than 8,000 tonnes of debris threatens the loss of the services we rely on for life on Earth, including weather forecasting, telecommunications and GPS systems.

The spacecraft works by trying to attach itself to dead satellites and push them towards Earth to burn in the atmosphere.

ELSA-d will be carried out by a “server satellite” and a “client satellite” which will be launched together, according to Astroscale, the Japanese company behind the mission. Using magnetic docking technology, the server will release and attempt to “rendezvous” with the client, which will act like a fake piece of space debris.

The mission, which will be led from the UK, will carry out this capture and release process several times over the course of six months. The goal is to prove the service satellite’s ability to track and dock with its target at different levels of complexity.

The spacecraft is not designed to capture dead satellites already in orbit, but rather future satellites that would be launched with compatible docking plates.

Space waste has been a growing problem for years, as man-made objects, such as old satellites and parts of spaceships, accumulate in low earth orbit until they decompose, collapse. deorbit, explode or collide with other objects, fragmenting into smaller pieces of waste.

In 2019, for example, India destroyed one of its Earth-orbiting satellites, creating hundreds of debris that threatened to collide with the International Space Station.

According to a recent NASA report, at least 26,000 of the millions of space debris are the size of softballs. Orbiting at 17,500 mph, they could “destroy a satellite on impact.” More than 500,000 parts constitute an “end-of-mission threat” because of their ability to impact protection systems, fuel tanks and spacecraft cabins.

And most of the debris, more than 100 million pieces, is the size of a grain of salt and could pierce a spacesuit, “amplifying the risk of catastrophic collisions with the spacecraft and crew,” the report.

According to NASA, cleaning up space – and managing the risks associated with debris – depends on preventing more garbage from accumulating and actively disposing of it.

The development of other cleaning technologies has been underway for years. In 2016, the Japanese space agency sent a 700-meter tether into space to try to slow down and redirect space debris. In 2018, a device called RemoveDebris managed to cast a net around a dummy satellite.

The European Space Agency is also planning to send a self-destructing robot into orbit in 2025, which the organization’s former chief executive called a space “vacuum cleaner”.

These efforts could prove to be increasingly important as private space companies like SpaceX continue to clutter low Earth orbit with a “mega-constellation” of satellites.

ELSA-d will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 2:07 a.m.ET on Monday. The mission was originally scheduled to take off earlier this weekend, but was postponed on Saturday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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