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This satellite aims to show the world how to clean up space

ELSA-d is the world’s first commercial mission that will demonstrate technologies for space debris docking and removal

ELSA-d's servicer satellite has been developed to safely remove debris objects from orbit, equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism. (Courtesy: Astroscale)

On 22 March, a Russian Soyuz rocket took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying 38 foreign satellites. The take-off was postponed twice due to technical issues, according to the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

One of the satellites on-board the rocket was from the Japanese space tech company Astroscale, which is aiming to demonstrate technologies that can dock with and remove space debris in low-earth orbit. At any given time, as per latest numbers from the European Space Agency (ESA), there are close to 34,000 debris objects in orbit, which are bigger than 10 cm in size.

The ELSA-d or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration is a spacecraft that aims to safely remove debris objects from orbit. It is equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism. ELSA-d consists of two satellites stacked together -- one is a servicer designed to safely remove debris from orbit and the other a client satellite that will serve as a piece of replica or mock debris.

In the first of three complex demonstrations, the servicer satellite will release, and then dock magnetically, with the client satellite, according to an official press release by Astroscale on the successful launch of the mission. Following this demonstration of a non-tumbling capture, ELSA-d will perform two additional demonstrations: one to capture the client while it is tumbling, and one to deliberately lose, re-locate, approach and re-capture it from far-range.

In an interview with Mint Lounge earlier this year, Astroscale founder and CEO Nobu Okada explained why it’s essential for us ensuring the responsible use of our orbits. “Development in space has to continue but we have to make sure low-Earth orbit is safe and free from risk as much as possible. It's the same as on a highway here on the ground -- if there's a broken-down car, it has to be towed away to keep the rest of the traffic moving,” said Okada, during a video call from Tokyo, Japan. “Orbits are just like highways for satellites, so we’re trying to develop a similar servicing system in space. That's our mission here at Astroscale and we are fully committed to making that change,” he explained.

As per the latest updates, Astroscale’s mission operations team had taken control of both spacecraft, ensuring that the ELSA-d servicer craft was now safely positioned in orbit. Okada said in the release that this mission will not only propel regulatory developments but also advance the business case for end-of-life and active debris removal services in the future.

While space-faring nations around the world have begun to acknowledge the issue of space debris, some startups and private companies are devising technologies to deal with the problem on a more urgent basis. Apart from Astroscale, ClearSpace SA, a Switzerland-based startup founded in 2018, is aiming to launch the world’s first active debris removal mission in collaboration with ESA by 2025. The mission, which actually hopes to remove a piece of space debris, will also be the first of its kind.

Also read: The race to clean up outer space

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