Astroscale successfully demonstrated its space junk collection satellite can clear orbital debris

On 25 August, Japan-UK-based aerospace company Astroscale achieved a major milestone — its space junk removal demo satellite successfully used a magnetic system to capture and release a client spacecraft.

Space debris, or the unused man-made junk revolving in the Earth’s orbit, poses a risk of collision with other satellites.

Elsa-d ESA says approximately 9,200 tonnes of debris in orbit. Image: Astroscale/PA

Elsa-d ESA says approximately 9,200 tonnes of debris in orbit. Image: Astroscale/PA

The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission was launched in March this year with the aim of being the world’s first commercial mission for the demonstration of the space debris removal system. Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the satellite consisted of a 175-kg service spacecraft and a 17-kg client satellite.

The ELSA-d mission included two separate spacecraft: a “client” that poses as space debris and a “servicer” designed to remove said debris.

The demonstration was proof that the servicer can manage to capture and release other spacecraft, according to a statement by Astroscale. The company explained that the major challenge of space debris removal — docking with, or capturing, a client object — can be managed by the servicer.

But the mission isn’t complete yet. The ELSA-d must reattempt the capture-and-release process three more times successfully before Astroscale can consider the mission accomplished.

The servicer must capture and release the provider from a greater distance for the second attempt. After that, the process will be replicated with the provider simulating a tumbling, uncontrolled object. The final demonstration will be a “diagnosis and client search,” with the servicer inspecting the provider from a close distance, moving away, and then re-capturing it.

Astroscale is one of several companies working on the issue of space debris. NASA has estimated that over 27,000 pieces of debris are floating in the Earth’s orbit as per the global Space Surveillance Network of the Department of Defense. The amount is expected to grow as launching a spacecraft grows less expensive.