Last month, the company Astroscale tried to catch simulated space junk in orbit. Now we know she plans a test of a whole new level towards the end of the year 2024. It will be a question of launching into orbit a device capable of capturing space debris.
In order to carry out this future mission, Astroscale, which is based in Tokyo, has signed a partnership with the company OneWeb which is a satellite internet service provider. The mission was named ELSA-M or “End-of-Life Service by Astroscale-M”, and the goal is to “future provide a space debris removal service for satellite operators”. This is a test mission that has the support of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency. These two agencies provided a total of 14.8 million euros.
According to John Auburn, CEO of Astroscale, the spacecraft to be sent into orbit will demonstrate “the company’s capabilities to reach, capture and de-orbit using a customer’s full-size constellation.” . He added that they had plans to launch their services for satellite operators after the deorbit demonstration. Their vision is to popularize space debris cleanup by 2030.
A difficult path
Space debris removal consists of capturing and de-orbiting several satellites in low orbit. These will be satellites which will no longer have fuel or will no longer work due to damage.
In March 2021, Astroscale had already launched a demonstration mission called ELSA-d. During this mission, the company tested the track and capture technology using a simulated piece of space junk. In May, the mission was suspended due to “abnormal spacecraft conditions”.
Despite this suspension, the machine succeeded in demonstrating the passage of absolute navigationi.e. using the ground controls and GPS sensors, towards relative navigation. The latter allows autonomous travel based on on-board systems.
In January, “technical anomalies” had also caused the suspension of the attempted approach. This time, 4 of the 8 thrusters of the aircraft were defective.
An extended contract
This new contract signed between Astroscale and OneWeb is in fact an extension of the contract which had been signed by the two parties in 2021. In this first contract, the two companies committed to work together on space debris removal technology.
Nowadays, mega-constellations of satellites like those of OneWeb and SpaceX represent a new space security problem. It is therefore more than necessary to find a way to “clean” the orbit of all out-of-service elements to reduce the risk of collisions. Astroscale’s technology could become a cornerstone for ensuring safety in orbit in the years to come.