Space debris is an ongoing problem for scientists who work to protect vulnerable navigation, weather, and communication equipment.
At approximately 8:30am EST (1330 GMT) Friday, Japan successfully launched an unmanned cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS). According to a PhysOrg report on the launch, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) spokesman Nobuyoshi Fujimoto said that the satellite was removed from the H-IIB rocket and put into planned orbit approximately 15 minutes after liftoff.
The vessel, Kounotori 6 (stork, in Japanese), carries batteries and drinking water for ISS astronauts. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that it also carries an experimental space junk collector.
Scientists at JAXA have spent 10 years developing a tether system to pull space junk out of orbit around Earth. JAXA worked with fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo to create an electrodynamic tether made from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum, using fishnet plaiting technology.
The clean-up concept involves attaching one end of the tether to debris. As the tether swings through the Earth’s magnetic field, it will generate electricity, which is expected to have a slowing effect on the space debris, pulling it into lower and lower orbit, and eventually into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up.
The tethers being tested have been getting progressively longer—the one now headed to space is 700 meters long—but scientists envision 5,000 to 10,000 meter-long tethers in the future. If the current trial is successful, the next tests will involve attaching one end of the tether to a targeted object. The scientists hope the junk collection system will be in regular use within the next decade.
Humans have been exploring space for over five decades, and it is estimated that over 100 million pieces of space detritus have accumulated from bits and pieces shed from rockets and crippled satellites. The orbiting belt of debris has been variously called a “critical contemporary crisis,” a “growing threat to space exploration,” and a “significant threat to the health and mission success of satellites—and therefore the capabilities they provide…”
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Collisions can (and have) damage working equipment, and space debris is an ongoing problem for scientists who have to try to protect vulnerable navigation, weather, and communication equipment.
A unique project, designed to bring the problem of space debris front and center, was recently launched in the UK. Adrift, created by artists Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan, “Explores the secret world of space junk, making it personal, visible, and audible.” Hugh Lewis, head of astronautics research at the University of Southampton, acted as scientific advisor to the project.
The project takes the form of an interactive experience, a documentary film, and a sound installation. You can even follow, and adopt, a piece of space junk on Twitter, and it will communicate with you live from space. Wild!