A Japanese space agency is joining forces with a fishing net company to clean up space junk that can threaten communication networks on Earth.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) has started development of a magnetic net that will capture manmade debris floating in space. The first test of the new technology is set to take place in late February, the South China Morning Post reports.
“We started work on this project about five years ago and we are all excited to see the outcome of this first test,” Koji Ozaki, the engineer who heads the development team at Hiroshima-based Nitto Seimo, told the South China Morning Post.
The test will involve launching a satellite into space that will unravel a net about 980 feet long that will create a magnetic field to attract space debris. The net, which is made of three strong and flexible metal fibers, will be in Earth’s orbit for about a year before being pulled down by Earth’s gravity, which will incinerate the captured debris, RT reports.
“Fishing nets need to be extremely strong because they need to be able to hold a large number of fish, but our tether does not have to be that strong,” Seimo said. “It is more important that it is flexible.”
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Whether or not the test is successful, space needs a good cleanup. Scientists estimate about 29,000 pieces of manmade space debris larger than 4 inches are orbiting Earth at average speeds of 15,500 miles per hour, Reuters reports. The debris poses a hazard to spacecraft and satellites.
According to Jaxa, future tests will involve attaching the net to large pieces of space junk like nonoperational rocket engines and satellites to capture the space junk. The agency has planned to conduct more tests next year and anticipates a fully operational system by 2019.
This isn’t the first design aimed at eliminating space junk. John L. Crassidis, a professor who specializes in space junk at the University of Buffalo, says the best way to handle space debris is to track it in order to avoid destroying expensive satellites. His latest project, LANSAT, or Lightcurve Analyzing NanoSATellite, is a U.S. Air Force-funded project that NASA plans to send into space in two years.
“We are increasingly reliant on satellites for a number of important things in our everyday lives, such as weather prediction, navigation and communications. However, even a tiny piece of space junk the size of a golf ball can destroy a multimillion-dollar satellite and create yet more space junk in the process,” Crassidis said in a statement. “We are working on techniques to track the locations and movements of all the pieces of space junk so that satellite positions can be adjusted to avoid them.”
In Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed the Gossamer Deorbiter Sail, an aerodynamic technique that is deployed to take down nonoperational telecom satellites. The sail, which measures just 15x15x25cm is able to take down a spacecraft that weighs more than 1,500 pounds, Forbes reports.
“We are delighted to have completed the design, manufacture and testing of ESA’s Gossamer Deorbit Sail, the first of its kind internationally,” Professor Vaios Lappas from the University of Surrey’s Space Centre, said. “The project has been able to show that the design of a low-cost and robust end-of-life deorbiting system not only is possible but also can lead to tangible products with a strong commercial interest.”