Orbital sweep-up: Japan launches probe to inspect space debris

Adras-J will use ground-based data to approach junk from a safe distance

A rocket lifts off from New Zealand on Monday, carrying the debris removal probe known as Adras-J. AFP
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A spacecraft has been launched on a pioneering quest to investigate a large piece of rocket debris left behind during a Japanese space agency mission.

The probe, called the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (Adras-J), will approach the H2A upper-stage rocket body and gather images to assess the movement and condition of the debris.

The mission, supervised by Astroscale, could help with designing future spacecraft to actively remove debris in orbit.

Adras-J was launched on Sunday aboard a Rocket Lab rocket from a spaceport in New Zealand.

“The Astroscale Japan mission operations team in Tokyo has successfully made contact with Adras-J and is ready to start operations,” project manager Eijiro Atarashi said in a statement.

“This milestone signals the start of our mission and we are excited to survey and characterise a real piece of debris through our innovative rendezvous and proximity operations capabilities.”

Astroscale was contracted by Jaxa, the Japanese space agency, to develop, launch and operate the spacecraft under its commercial removal of debris programme.

The rocket body under analysis was launched in 2009.

It does not have any GPS data of its own, which means Adras-J will use ground-based data to approach the space debris from a safe distance in the coming days.

Catching space junk

In 2021, Astroscale carried out another demonstration mission, the Esla-d, in which a probe was able to catch debris in space using a magnetic system.

Companies trying to tap into the space debris removal market include ClearSpace, based in Switzerland.

The firm hopes to launch a craft in 2026 that will remove a 112kg defunct part of a rocket that lifted off in 2013.

It aims to bring the debris back to Earth in a safe atmospheric re-entry.

Experts have long been voicing concerns as the level of debris continues to increase, with Nasa estimating at least 100 million objects with a 1cm-10cm diameter and more than 36,500 pieces of more than 10cm are floating in space.

Space debris can have an extremely long lifespan in orbit because there is low atmospheric drag to help pull the junk closer to Earth for safe re-entry.

Moriba Jah, a space scientist and associate professor at the University of Texas, told The National that Earth's orbit could become "unusable because there is so much space junk".

"Most of the stuff that we send up into space stays there for a very long time," he said.

"And right now, just like we have problems on the Earth with single-use plastics, every single satellite is a single-use satellite. So, its end state has always become junk and that's pretty sad."

He said that while clean-up of debris was welcome, prevention of space pollution was more important to avoid a crowded orbit.

He has created and proposed a charter for a circular space economy, available online, which is he encouraging nations to join.

The charter encourages space operators to make environmentally informed decisions.

Updated: March 05, 2024, 10:55 AM