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For those reading Warp News, it should be quite clear that space is becoming ever more important. The benefits for humanity are immense, as are the investments made to harness these. Guaranteeing the safety of these assets as well as personnel in space is thus of utmost importance.
A clear threat is the presence of space debris that not only threatens satellites and space travelers but also causes even more debris to fill our orbits. According to ESA, 6050 launches have taken place during the half-century since the first satellite was put in orbit. These launches have resulted in 28'160 trackable objects floating around the earth and according to gov.uk, there's an estimate of 900'000 pieces of debris in total. Only 4'000 are operational satellites.
In spite of this large number, only seven collisions have occurred to date. Most of the debris has been caused by spacecraft or launch vehicles exploding during launch as well as testing of antisatellite weapons.
A company that's working to avert this threat is Astroscale. It was founded in 2013 and aims to make space more sustainable. Their means of doing so include increasing situational awareness, extending the life of existing satellites, and, of course, the removal of debris.
On August 25, their ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) satellite successfully demonstrated its capability to magnetically capture a target object. In this test, the target was launched together with the test craft. Once in orbit, ELSA-d repeatedly released, intercepted, and captured the target.
This is of course just a first step on the way to gaining the ability to capture and de-orbit debris. Yet it's both impressive and encouraging. Enough so to garner support.
On September 22, Astroscale announced they'd been selected by The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, for its CRD2-technology demonstration. CRD2 is short for Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration and as the name suggests, aims to commercialize space debris removal.
This will be done using the company's ADRAS-J craft. Currently, plans are to launch the spacecraft in 2023, put it in orbit, and have it rendezvous with a Japanese rocket stage. At that point, it will perform numerous tests, including taking photos of the debris, demonstrating proximity operations, and in a second stage de-orbit the rocket stage. Assembly of the ADRAS-J spacecraft is slated to commence early next year.
On October 23, Astroscale was tasked by the UK Space Agency to study the removal of two satellites from orbit by 2025. Astroscale, along with swiss company ClearSpace have been tasked with finishing feasibility studies by the end of March 2022. While the companies are free to propose the use of whichever spacecraft they like to perform the task, they have to be launched into orbit using a UK license.
"These new projects will support our leading role in cleaning up our orbit, which has been neglected for far too long, and will help keep satellites operating safely so they can continue to provide vital services such as communications and climate change monitoring", says George Freeman, UK Science Minister. The UK government has expressed an ambition to become the leading nation in tackling space debris.
It is a big commitment to clean our orbits. With the large amounts of scrap floating above us, it will probably require the commitment of many countries for decades to come. It feels reassuring that efforts are now being made.