Spacewatch: Mission launched to clean up space debris

Rebecca Sykes looks at the anthropogenic waste problem that extends out of this world

Rebecca Sykes
24th May 2021
Image Credit: NASA on Unsplash
On 22nd March 2021 at 06:07UTC, ELSA-d (End of Life Services demonstration) was launched to clean up space debris. This is vitally important as more space junk increases the chances of collisions and serious damage to our satellites.

ELSA-d’s mission is unique in its attempt to clean up space trash, as the 2 components forming ELSA-d function to demonstrate the safe disposal of out-of-use satellites by using magnets for one satellite to attach to the other.

The ultimate aim for ELSA-d is to find unwanted satellites and shoot them back into the Earth’s atmosphere

One part of ELSA-d is a 175kg servicer which will securely remove debris from orbit. The second part of ELSA-d is a 17kg client satellite acting as replica debris for the servicer to destroy. In the demonstrations, expected in June or July, the servicer will release the client, and proceed to find, inspect, and attach to it and repeat the process with the client in a tumbling orbit to make the task harder for ELSA-d.

The harder task will prove ELSA-d is the technology capable of cleaning up space debris even when the debris is moving unpredictably through space. The ultimate aim is for ELSA-d to find and clamp on unwanted satellites to shoot them back into the Earth’s atmosphere where they will be burnt up and removed.

Image Credit: WikiImages on Pixabay

Astroscale, a UK-Japanese private company, is the creator of ELSA-d. It hopes ELSA-d will be successful, leading to increased productions of ELSA, as after the demonstration it will safely burn up upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Potentially, ELSA could be employed to clear a crowded area of space that may disturb a space agency’s mission and remove a company’s dead satellites. This is a great step for Astroscale, as a company whose self-proclaimed vision is to “secure safe and sustainable development of space for the benefit of future generations”.

Out of 5,000+ satellites orbiting the Earth, only 1,950 are operational

There’s a risk that, unlike the predicted 15-30m miss of 2 satellites near collision above Pittsburgh, US in 2020, space debris will collide and threaten functional satellites. Astroscale explains that out of 5,000+ satellites orbiting the Earth, only 1,950 are operational, and in over 10 years another 10,000 are set to launch. Chris Blackerby, Astroscale’s COO, wants any satellite launched to be built for easy removal in order to reduce space debris in a positive move for space sustainability. For ELSA to remove the dead satellites, satellite operators would have to attach magnetic plates to future satellites.

All going well, Astroscale’s ELSA-d will establish a safe method of removing space debris which will be key for space sustainability.

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