Competition appears to be fierce in Japan between scientists and startups to develop programs to deal with the ever-growing amount of space debris — rocket parts — that are already orbiting Earth at extremely high speeds. That number is likely to rise even further with the arrival of “mega-constellations” of satellites aimed at providing fast internet access everywhere.
In an interview with AFP, Ms Miki Ito, head of Japanese startup AstroScale, which works towards “sustainable” space, warned: “Simulations indicate that space will become unusable if this continues.” Improve the sky environment. Late. We are entering an age where many satellites will be launched one by one. And the space becomes more crowded.”
Accidents are already on the rise: In January, a Chinese satellite was hit by fragments from an old Soviet satellite. Last year, the thermocouple of the International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic arm was punctured by debris a few millimeters away.
Laser beams to defeat debris and keep it out of satellite orbit
“Smaller debris is a problem because it goes undetected,” as opposed to larger objects whose names, location and speed are “constantly tracked.” Japanese space agency researcher Toru Yamamoto explained.
There are rules of good practice to reduce space debris, such as moving obsolete satellites into “graveyard orbits.” But this is not enough, especially since there is currently no legally binding international text.
“A geostationary satellite faces 100 warnings of approaching debris every year,” said Tatanori Fukushima, an engineer at Japanese satellite operator Sky Perfect GAT.
Mr. Fukushima founded a startup looking for a solution: a laser beam that vaporizes the surface of space debris, creating a pulse of energy to propel the material into a new orbit.
Fukushima hopes to conduct its first test in space in the spring of 2025 in collaboration with various research institutes.
The astroscale concept is more advanced: a kind of magnet-powered space “dug truck” that recovers satellites at the end of their lives.
The company passed the first test last year and plans to conduct a second test by the end of 2024, in collaboration with OSI and OneWAP, the British operator of a group of low-orbit satellites.
“There is no universal cure”
Even weirder, another Japanese team has envisioned wooden satellites, a material that could be used entirely upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The project by Kyoto University (western Japan) and the Sumitomo Forestry Group is still in its infancy: in March, pieces of wood were sent to the International Space Station to check their reaction to cosmic rays.
Fukushima said Japan is one of the most dynamic space nations in developing space debris solutions.
But companies around the world are also working to capture this growing market, which will emerge in 2030.
At the end of 2020, the European Space Agency signed a €100 million deal with Swiss start-up Clear Space to send the world’s first commercial mission to clean up space debris into orbit in 2025.
US companies are designing several satellite repair services to extend their use, for example refueling in space.
The space debris problem is complex enough to prevent the implementation of broad-based solutions. According to the same source, there is no universal cure.
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