JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, has been working on a mission to wrangle up rogue pieces of space junk floating in Earth’s orbit. On Monday, Tokyo announced that it was game over for the ambitious mission due to problems releasing their space junk-dragging cable tether.
The grand plan is to attach a 700-meter-long (2,300-foot-long) electrodynamic cable – called the called the Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment (KITE) – to pieces of large space junk, with the hopes of producing atmospheric drag and thereby slowing down the space junk to pull it out of orbit.
This experiment wanted to test out the idea on the Kounotori-6, a JAXA spacecraft used to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft would act as a kind of test dummy, playing the role of a piece of space junk.
JAXA said they were encountering problems with the task last week, but it now emerges they were unable to fix the glitch and that unresolvable problems arose. Crucially, the spacecraft was unable to release the cable.
"We believe the tether did not get released," lead researcher Koichi Inoue told reporters, according to AFP. "It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives."
Meanwhile, Kounotori-6 reentered Earth's atmosphere above New Zealand just after midnight local time on February 6.
There are millions of pieces of space junk out there, thousands of which weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Missions like this could be invaluable as the threat of space debris colliding with satellites increases. There’s no word yet if JAXA will attempt the mission again or just put the idea to rest. But, as the Japanese proverb says, “fall seven times and stand up eight.”