A satellite is about to demonstrate a new method for capturing space junk with magnets for the first time. With the frequency of launches dramatically increasing in recent years, the potential for a disastrous collision is continually growing. Now Japanese orbital cleanup company Astroscale is testing a potential solution.
The firm’s End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d) mission is scheduled to launch on 20 March aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. The mission consists of two spacecraft: a small “client” satellite and a larger “servicer” satellite, or “chaser”. The smaller satellite is equipped with a magnetic plate which allows the chaser to dock with it.
The two stacked spacecraft will perform three tests once in orbit, each of which will involve the servicer satellite releasing and then recapturing the client satellite. The first test will be the simplest, with the client satellite drifting away and then being recaptured by the chaser. In the second test, the servicer satellite will set the client satellite tumbling before catching up to it and matching its motion to grab it.
Finally, if those two tests go well, the chaser will live up to its name by letting the client satellite float a few hundred metres away before finding it and attaching to it. All of these tests will be performed autonomously, with little to no human input once they are set in motion.
“These kinds of demonstrations have never been done before in space – they are very different to, say, an astronaut controlling a robotic arm on the International Space Station,” says Jason Forshaw at Astroscale UK. “This is more of an autonomous mission.” At the end of the mission, both spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
In the future, if companies wanted to use this capability, they would have to attach a magnetic plate to their satellites so they could be captured later. Because of the growing space debris problem, many countries now require firms to have a plan to bring back their satellites once they run out of fuel or fail, so this could be a fairly simple contingency plan, Forshaw says. Right now, each chaser can only nab one satellite, but Astroscale is working on a version that could drag three or four out of orbit at once.
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