Technology advances as much by its successes as by its failures. The engineers ofAstroscale must certainly meditate on the adage while their satellite-tug ELSA-D no longer does what it was supposed to do, which is towing a small test satellite as a typical “space junk”.
3D rendering of ELSA tug satellite next to mini satellite used as fake space junk
Everything had started well for the startup Japanese: ELSA-D (End of Life Services) was placed in orbit in the spring of 2021, carrying with it a 17 kg mini-test satellite. A few weeks later, ELSA-D released its little protege at a distance of a few tens of centimeters, before recovering it without the slightest technical problem. Very recently, Astroscale had to move on to the final test phase, which this time consisted of recovering the scrap mini-satellite while it was several tens of meters away.
Unfortunately this time, nothing worked as planned: the two satellites nevertheless remain partly under the control of the ground teams, but the recovery phase was simply stopped following the discovery of “abnormal conditions”. Astroscale does not specify what type of anomaly has been detected, which does not really lend itself to optimism. Will it one day be necessary to tow the satellite-tug that has in turn become one piece of space debris among many others? Perhaps Astroscale could seek advice from the engineers of the Chinese space agency, which has managed a large-scale space tow with its satellite Shijian-21.