Japan Is at the Forefront of Efforts to Clean Up Space Trash. It Just Deployed a 'Space Garbage Truck' Next to an Old Rocket

  • Japan’s Atroscale has designed ADRAS-J, which aims to approach, inspect, and remove space debris.

  • The company will place its satellite less then 164 feet away from the second stage of an H-IIA rocket that the Japanese space agency launched in 2009.

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Although the space trash problem has been growing for decades, no company has ever attempted to get near old debris in orbit—until now. Japan’s Astroscale is leading the effort.

Inspecting space trash up close. The ADRAS-J (Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan) satellite is a significant step forward in the fight against space debris. It's the equivalent of a giant space garbage truck. Developed by Astroscale in collaboration with the JAXA, the Japanese space agency, this 3-ton satellite is designed to approach, inspect, and remove debris from space.

ADRAS-J was launched on a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle on February 18. By April 17, the satellite had gotten within a few hundred feet of its target: the second stage of an H-IIA rocket launched in 2009. On May 23, ADRAS-J came within 164 feet of the large piece of space trash.

The first pictures of its kind. Using its twelve thrusters, ADRAS-J closely inspected the rocket’s cryogenic stage. This marks the first time a satellite has approached an old rocket in orbit and taken photos of the derelict object, a complex and risky maneuver.

Though Japan is leading these efforts, it’s not doing it all by itself. The Swiss company ClearSpace also plans to launch its ClearSpace-1 mission in 2026 to capture and de-orbit the European PROBA 1 satellite.

A dumping ground. Low Earth orbit has become a dumping ground with over 34,000 objects larger than 4 inches floating around unchecked. With more companies carrying out space launches, the number of abandoned satellites and rockets increases, too, raising the risk of collision.

The worst-case scenario is the Kessler syndrome, which predicts a chain reaction of collisions. If two pieces of space junk fragment into multiple pieces upon collision, these fragments may then collide with other objects, creating more debris, and so on.

A risk to astronauts and access to space. Space debris can remain in orbit for centuries, especially at altitudes above 560 miles. To address this issue, it’s crucial to prioritize the removal of larger pieces, such as rocket upper stages, which make up only 11% of orbital debris.

If left unaddressed, orbital debris collisions are projected to become a daily occurrence within a few decades.

Image | Astroscale

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