Astroscale’s Satellite is Now Chasing Down a Real Piece of Space Debris

Space debris is a thing.. It seems whether we explore the Earth or space we leave rubbish in our wake. Thankfully, organisations like Astroscale are trying to combat the problem of debris in space with a new commercial debris inspection demonstration satellite. Named ADRAS-J, the satellite – which is now in orbit – is hunting down an old Japanese upper stage rocket body which was launched in 2009.  It will approach to within 30 metres to study the module from every angle and work out how it can be safely de-orbited by a future mission. 

Space debris, or space junk comprises of man made objects orbiting Earth that are no longer needed.  It’s been about 70 years since the launch of Sputnik, the first human made satellite and already, debris in space is a problem and it can be anything from  spent rocket stages to defunct satellites or even fragments that are the results of collisions. Collectively these objects pose a real threat to operational spacecraft due their high speed. Left unchecked, space debris will become a major problem and could even, ultimately, cut off our access to space. 

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

The ADRAS-J mission marks the world’s first attempt to safely approach and survey a piece of space debris through the Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) technique. Designed to approach a Japanese upper stage rocket body, ADRAS-J aims to showcase the technique while capturing images to assess the object’s movement and condition.

ADRAS-J was successfully launched from New Zealand on February 18 and is part of Phase 1 of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s plan to deal with space debris. Its name gives recognition to that purpose ‘Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan’. Its initial target, the Japanese H2A upper stage rocket body. 

An H-2A rocket, Japan’s primary large-scale launch vehicle. Credit: JAXA

The target object lacks any GPS data making it more tricky for the team to rendezvous but perhaps makes it a more realistic target for testing debris analysis activity. Over the next few weeks, the ADRAS-J team will continue to undertake in-orbit tests and checks before it finally, cautiously approaches the object. They will resort to using ground based observational data to approximate its position to make the approach as safe as possible. The initial approach will then be followed up with closer approachers to fully assess the object. 

Whilst it is of course great to see some real movement to resolve the issue of space debris, the problem will simply keep growing until efforts are made to stem the increasing amount of debris. On more than one occasion now the occupants to the International Space Station have had to evacuate due to risks over space debris impact. Yet over 300 commercial and government groups have announced that there are plans to launch around half a million more satellites by 2030! That’s almost half a million more objects to track and keep managed so they do not lead to more and more debris. The challenge is hard but is not surmountable, as long as we act now.

Source : Astroscale Successfully Launches World’s First Debris Inspection Spacecraft, ADRAS-J