Video Astroboffins are gearing up to test a method to remove future space junk from Earth's orbit with the launch of ELSA-d, an experimental spacecraft that uses magnetism to snare debris.
ELSA-d, which stands for End-of-Life Services demonstration, hitched a ride to space on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday at 0607 UTC. It was developed by Astroscale, a Japanese startup focused on orbital debris, and Surrey Satellite Technology, an aerospace biz spun out of the University of Surrey in England.
Once it arrives at its destination, the device will split into two components: a 175kg servicer satellite and a 17kg client satellite. The servicer contains a magnetic docking station while the client module simulates a hunk of metallic debris.
Signal acquisition of our #ELSAd servicer and client satellites confirmed! 📡 Congrats to the entire team and thank you to all our partners and fellow Space Sweepers around the world for getting us this far. #GoELSAd pic.twitter.com/vmxRmpSQ6g— Astroscale (@astroscale_HQ) March 22, 2021
During the mission, the servicer will repeatedly dock with and eject the client to demonstrate it can successfully locate and capture scraps of floating metal. The idea is that after the servicer catches things like defunct satellites using its docking mechanism, it can then release the objects into orbits where the stuff will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere rather than accidentally crash into operational gear.
Destroying trash is a good way of decluttering low-Earth orbit; it also decreases the chances of spacecraft prangs. In the worst case scenario, described by the Kessler effect, chunks of metal break off during these crashes and smash into other satellites, triggering a cascade of metallic trash. A sea of litter would flood space, making it difficult to lift off from Earth and safely make it into the Solar System and beyond.
Bear in mind ELSA-d only works as a garbage disposal if future spacecraft are kitted out with a large ferromagnetic plate, as seen on the client, to dock with the servicer module. You can watch a demo of how it works in a video below:
Demonstrating that space junk is a problem worth tackling, America's Federal Communications Commission implemented a rule last year requesting telecommunications companies planning to launch satellites explain how they would minimize the chances of crashes in the void.
Spacecraft can sometimes spontaneously break down, too. The US Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron announced that one of the country's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s now-defunct weather observing satellites fractured into 16 pieces:
#18SPCS has confirmed the breakup of NOAA 17 (#27453, 2002-06-24) on March 10, 2021, at 0711 UTC. NOAA 17 was decommissioned in 2013. Tracking 16 associated pieces – no indication caused by collision. #spaceflightsafety #spacedebris @spacetrackorg— 18 SPCS (@18SPCS) March 19, 2021
The Register has asked NOAA for comment. ®