Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Burgeoning Orbital Debris Removal Industry

The topic of orbital debris removal is one of those "gifts that keep on giving" in that it never goes away. Everyone is concerned about it. I'm going to include things like the Mission Extension Vehicles that we first talked about just over four years ago, February of 2020. This wasn't orbital debris in the typical sense: boosters or parts of satellites that are just left in orbit and either reenter within days or a few years to burn up on re-entry. This was a mission to extend the life of an Intelsat communications satellite (IS-901) in Geosynchronous orbit. The concept is clearly the same.

The Intelsat (IS-901) spacecraft was launched in 2001 and was pulled from active service in December 2019 as it ran low on fuel. Operators commanded the satellite to move into a "graveyard orbit" farther out than the unique geostationary space. It is here that MEV-1 linked up with the communications satellite on Tuesday. 

Payload reports that a startup company called Astroscale had reached a major milestone on their ADRAS-J mission to find and characterize a large piece of orbital debris. 

Astroscale has hunted down its targeted space debris and is now within paparazzi distance. 

The debris removal company announced Wednesday that its ADRAS-J mission has successfully executed its debris rendezvous maneuver and is now gearing up for a proximity approach.

Rendez-who: JAXA tasked the Tokyo-based startup with inspecting a second-stage H-2A rocket that has been floating in orbit since 2009. 

To complicate the situation, this second stage isn't equipped with GPS, making the rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) more dangerous. During the rendezvous, ADRAS-J lifted its orbit several times, but is still "hundreds of kilometers" away from the H-2A second stage.

In this rendering, the ADRAS-J satellite approaches the target H-2A second stage. Image credit: Astroscale.

This mission will not deorbit the target; the ADRAS-J satellite will move in closer to get more pictures, examining the condition of the debris and learning what it will take to handle that target. They expect to complete the mission by the end of May. Ultimately, the company plans to handle orbital debris by latching onto things like this and deorbiting them. They expect to accomplish that on a followup mission - no date given.

The ADRAS-J spacecraft was selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for Phase I of its Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration program. Astroscale Japan is responsible for the design, manufacture, test, launch and operations of ADRAS-J.


  1. Good. NASA has talked and talked and talked about it, done 5 year and 10 year studies and produced bupkis, nada, nil, zilch except for a lot of contractor pay and reams, boxes and warehouses full of documents.

    Good on JAXA.

  2. Didn’t Andy Griffith do this in Salvage1?

  3. I've said this before, but I'll repeat it.
    When I was working for GEODSS there was/is a booster from 1968 (!) that has orbital elements that are very nearly a perfectly circular orbit - x=1.00xxx by y=1.00xxx. It will take around 53 thousand years to deorbit. We used to use it as a calibration target for the telescopes...

    Here's hoping the Deorbit Industry can start getting a handle on things, although we need to get the Chinks to quit leaving all kinds of trash in orbit - they are extremely messy and clearly don't give a damn about the problem...

    1. Well, they do drop boosters on small cities, schools and wherever they happen to fall. They apparently don't care if their garbage on-orbit takes out something, manned or not.

  4. Amazing!
    and by law I still have to separate my garbage into organic non-comestibles, paper, cardboard, metal, PET, HDPE, etal, ad nauseam
    isn't any of this recyclable? set up a recycling facility up there!

    1. AFAIK, the technology to do that isn't there. I mean up there. The possibilities are to return it to the ground and do it here or put it in some sort of long term "storage orbit" until it's possible to recycle stuff up there. That could be used to describe the orbit they put the former geostationary sat.s into. Being farther out than their service orbit, the amount of time it will take them to reenter on their own is close enough to infinite to just call it that.

      As it is, all they do with this stuff they remove is drop it low enough to hopefully burn up on reentry. The calculation there is a few square feet of metal/plastic/whatever spread over hundreds of millions of square miles of Earth.

    2. The techology, the will, the money(?)...
      I think I may have been re-reading too much Heinlein, Pournelle, Niven, etal recently:
      I honestly believe a moveable (within a stable orbit) space/refining/zero-G manufacturing station is currently within our capabilities, if we so wished and (I do beg your pardon - politically) the money wouldn't be diverted to DEI, reparations, ad naus.

    3. The technology and the economics down here don't support recycling most things. Sure, glass can be ground and remelted, but there's mostly no market for recycled glass. Same with plastics, most places won't/can't/aren't willing to actually recycle.

      Where does all that recycling go? In most locations, from recycling bins to recycling centers where it's dumped and collected into garbage trucks that then take the garbage to the landfill.

    4. Recycling, as the greenies preach it, is one of those persistent beliefs that simply doesn't work out. I don't know if it's statewide, or just our county, but they're outright saying, "when in doubt, throw it out" - as opposed to putting it in the recycling bin. The economics never made it worthwhile. You can't create a market for something by demanding it be used.

  5. In orbit recycling or removal technologies exist, the markets (who pays) do not. Most of the debris, by quantity, is infinitesimal. Recycling is not practical. Two different problems with no current economic solution. This could change as SpaceX ramps up launches.

    1. In-orbit recycling won't be practical until in-orbit manufacturing is practical and exists.

      And that won't exist until it's cheaper and easier to manufacture in-orbit than it is on Earth or the Moon or Mars or on asteroids.

      Now some far-thinkers have already thought about potential recycling, as they've started an orbital scrap zone way out. That's mostly practical because it takes less juice to boost up than down in many cases, or there are worries about the size of the 'junk' and not burning up on re-entry. The recycling will come 'in the future.' Maybe. One way or another the large (really significantly small) amount of space gunk that's out in the garbage zone will have to be adressed some time in the future.