The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a neat idea for how to tackle the increasingly worrisome problem of space junk — deploying small spacecraft to literally tether chunks of debris and drag them down to a lower orbit, where both the debris and the craft that wrangled them will subsequently burn up in the atmosphere. Last week, a prototype system called the Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiments (KITE) was delivered to the International Space Station, which JAXA will soon begin testing. The technology could potentially be implemented within a decade.
JAXA first proposed this idea in 2014. A half-mile long electrodynamic tether (EDT) will target the larger pieces of debris we’re aware of, in the 400-4,000 pound range, according to Space.com. Fortunately for us all, JAXA recently released an animated video of what this is expected to look like.
The upcoming tests should help determine the best way for the tether to actually snare the debris itself, which, like most things people attempt to lasso, is a moving target. Remote operators will use a combination of GPS and optical cameras to guide the craft within range, facilitated by the current running through the tether.
Space junk is one of those problems that is constantly increasing in magnitude but invisible to pretty much everyone not in the business of studying it, kind of like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or melting ice shelves.
NASA is currently tracking more than half a million odds and ends — defunct satellites comprise a lot of the space junk we’re worried about, but also bits of equipment from previous missions, not to mention pieces of asteroids and the like. Pretty much every major space agency is concerned with developing solutions, though JAXA may have been additionally motivated by the possible loss of a satellite at the hands of space junk earlier this year. The larger pieces of space junk are dangerous — and expensive — not just because they collide with operational satellites, but because they collide with each other, essentially turning space junk into space shrapnel, the fragments of which can’t be easily tracked. If this system ends up being the one by which we get a handle on space junk for good, everyone will benefit.
Here’s the video in full: