According to estimates from the European space agency (ESA), currently 170 million pieces of space debris orbit the earth. Even small pieces of debris pose a major threat to satellites and spacecraft. When debris comes into contact with other items orbiting Earth, a collision happens, scattering fragments into space while increasing the possibility of further accidents.
The Singapore-based company Astrocale has assembled a team of specialists to develop technology that has the capability to destroy space debris, forcing it back into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn and disintegrate upon re-entry. The company secured $35 million in funding in 2016, most of which came from Japan’s Innovation Network Corporation.
Astrocale’s manufacturing plant in Tokyo is currently developing two different types of satellite. The first satellite is a micro satellite. It has the capability to collect real-time data on space debris smaller than a millimeter. The data it collects will be used to produce an orbital debris map. This map could be sold to international agencies, academics, and corporate satellite operators. It can be used for several different purposes and benefit many.
The second satellite manufactured by Astocale is called End-of-Life Service, or ELSA. The ESLA’s job it is to capture and remove defunct spacecraft. ELSA is only currently in the design phase; however, Astoscale plans to incorporate magnets and a secondary method (TBA) to catch satellites. Once the ELSA captures the satellite, it would force the debris back down to the Earth’s atmosphere, burning it up upon re-entry. A demonstration of ELSA is tentatively scheduled for October 2019.
Several astronauts have experienced the risks of space debris. Naoko Yamazaki, Japan’s second female astronaut, has experienced this first hand when she flew to the International Space Station (ISS) back in 2010. Ymazaki told CNN a small crack was found on a window of her space shuttle during a mission. The crack was smaller than an inch; therefore, it did not pose a threat to their mission. However, a bigger piece of debris could have been catastrophic.
Astronauts on space fights are not the only ones space debris can affect. Space debris poses a threat to working satellites that directly impact our daily lives. Many satellites have essential roles which include communications, weather forecasts, and GPS. There is no law governing the removal of defunct satellites; however, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee does have General guidelines indicating that state spacecraft and satellites should be returned to Earth within 25 years of their operational lifetime. Making outer space cleaner for working satellites ultimately benefits everyone.
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