Rocket Lab to launch space junk inspection mission for JAXA

Rocket Lab to launch space jun...
A launch of Rocket Lab's Electron booster
A launch of Rocket Lab's Electron booster
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A render of Astroscale's ADRAS-J satellite approaching a spent upper stage rocket
A render of Astroscale's ADRAS-J satellite approaching a spent upper stage rocket
A launch of Rocket Lab's Electron booster
A launch of Rocket Lab's Electron booster

There are currently tens of thousands of pieces of manmade debris whizzing around the Earth at blazing fast speeds, the result of things like busted up rocket parts and fragmented satellites. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has grand plans that involve performing the first large-scale demonstrations of space junk removal, and startup Rocket Lab has just been enlisted to get its first efforts off the ground.

Such is the magnitude of our space junk problem that there is no shortage of creative ideas around how it might be solved. Everything from weighted nets, to space harpoons, to magnetic space tugs to space fences have been put forward as ways of dealing with the increasing danger from space debris, which travels at tens of thousands of miles per hour and threatens catastrophic collisions with operational spacecraft.

JAXA's Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration (CRD2) mission is a collaborative effort with the private sector, aimed at removing large-scale debris. The project is currently in its first phase, which involves sending spacecraft into orbit to rendezvous with pieces of fast-moving debris, where they will capture images of it and study the surrounding environment.

As its first steps, early last year JAXA selected Japanese firm Astroscale as a commercial partner in the program, seeking to use its Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) satellite for these purposes. The satellite is being developed to rendezvous with a JAXA rocket's upper stage currently floating through space at around 27,000 km/h (17,000 mph), using cameras and LiDAR to come within 100 m (330 ft) of the target. There it will collect images and carry out observations from different angles, before zeroing in for an even closer look before departing.

A render of Astroscale's ADRAS-J satellite approaching a spent upper stage rocket
A render of Astroscale's ADRAS-J satellite approaching a spent upper stage rocket

It has been announced today that Astroscale and Rocket Lab have signed a dedicated launch contract, which will see the ADRAS-J satellite fired into space atop the startup's Electron rocket. This comes just a month after Rocket Lab entered an agreement to launch a separate space junk removal satellite under development by Finnish company Aurora, which will be deployed into orbit to test out its propulsion and braking systems.

“Reliable and commercially viable launch vehicles like Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket enable frequent and flexible access to space, allowing us to advance our on-orbit services which are fundamental to the growth of the space infrastructure and economy,” said Nobu Okada, Founder and CEO of Astroscale. “Rocket Lab and Astroscale have become leaders in our respective markets and I am thrilled to collaborate on ADRAS-J, a ground breaking mission that will shape the technologies and policies needed to drive space sustainability forward.”

The launch is scheduled to take place sometime in 2023. The hope is that by gathering data on the movement of the lost upper stage and the surrounding environment, JAXA can then proceed to the second phase of the Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration mission, which involves actually de-orbiting it. This is slated for liftoff in 2025 at the earliest.

“The ability to actively remove satellites and debris from orbit at the end of their operational life will likely play a key role in ensuring a sustainable space environment for the future, so we’re delighted to enable Astroscale to demonstrate new and innovative solutions in this field,” says Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Peter Beck.

You can check out an overview of the planned mission ADRAS-J mission in the video below.

ADRAS-J ConOps video - Phase I

Source: Rocket Lab

this smells more like exploitation of a funding opportunity than anything actually necessary... anything "up there" that wasn't positioned perfectly is going to decay really fast all by itself, and even the stuff exactly-where-it-belongs is *still* going to come back down - and in the case of Leo ones, relatively quickly:

Satellite Altitude Lifetime
200 km 1 day
300 km 1 month
400 km 1 year
500 km 10 years
700 km 100 years
900 km 1000 years
I don't see how they could get much mileage out of a small sat moving itself so rigorously around with a fixed amount of propellant. I'm still thinking someone like Elon could get some young entrepreneurs to build their own space station, then zoom around and collect the sats for precious metal salvage and structural metal sales to others coming into outer space. There would be money in it, for sure. I give it ten years.