spaceSpace and Physics

Japanese Experiment To Clean Up Space Junk In Orbit Encounters Problem


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

An artist's impression of the experiment. JAXA

A Japanese experiment to practice cleaning up space junk in Earth orbit has experienced a problem.

The experiment was due to take place on board the Kounotori-6 spacecraft, an H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) used by the Japanese space agency (JAXA) to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).


The spacecraft left the ISS on January 27, having spent six weeks attached to the station. Normally, HTVs are then sent to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, as they are unable to return to Earth.

But this time around, JAXA had planned to perform a few experiments on board the spacecraft. One of these was to be the intriguing Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiments (KITE).

The plan was to unfurl an electromagnetic tether (EDT) measuring about 700 meters (2,300 feet) long, with a mass weighing 20 kilograms (44 pounds) at the end. A current would run through the tether, and a combination of Earth’s magnetic field and the electric current would then keep it taut.

The tether was designed to produce atmospheric drag, creating a noticeable pull on the spacecraft. The idea is that this technology could be used on space debris in the future to drag it out of orbit.


But according to the Japan Times, it's not clear if the spacecraft has extended the cable, so the experiment has not yet gone ahead. JAXA is planning to continue trying until Saturday, with the spacecraft due to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up on Monday. Exact details of what went wrong have not yet been released.

It’s estimated that there are millions of pieces of paint fleck-sized debris in orbit, tens of thousands of pieces of space debris larger than a tennis ball, and thousands weighing more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Working out how to remove some of these larger bits would be very useful.

And there are impacts in orbit, albeit normally on a small scale. The ISS is frequently hit by small micrometeoroids, although we covered recently how they try to avoid impacts. And back in 2009, two satellites operated by Russia and the US collided, destroying both of them and adding thousands of new pieces of debris into orbit.

Here’s hoping JAXA has more luck with their experiment by Saturday.


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