ELSA-d spacecraft captures first “space debris” in orbit

Specialized in the elimination of orbital debris, the Astroscale company has just validated the magnetic capture system of its ELSA-d demonstration satellite by catching simulated debris directly in orbit. However, other steps still need to be validated before the commissioning of this new system aimed at “cleaning up the space”.

The problem of space debris

Imagine how dangerous it would be to navigate the sea if all the craft ever lost in history were still drifting on the surface. In near space, it’s a bit the same. ESA estimates that more than 34,000 pieces of debris over ten centimeters in diameter are currently floating above our heads. Tens of thousands more are even smaller.

These objects which spin in space at several tens of thousands of km / h then represent a threat to the active satellites and other occupants of the International Space Station. Recently, a Chinese satellite broke down after hitting a piece of the Zenit-2 rocket, which launched a Russian satellite in 1996. These risks of collisions should also increase in the future. due to the deployment of numerous satellite constellations aimed at providing broadband Internet access.

In recent years, a number of proposals have been put forward to try to clean up this space. We know that China is particularly considering the use of lasers. The RemoveDebris project, the fruit of the work of the European Space Agency (ESA), Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) and Airbus, offers the capture of satellites using nets. This same project also tested the technique of harpooning. More recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement with the Swiss start-up ClearSpace to deorb space waste.

New test passed for Astroscale

Astroscale, a private company specializing in the elimination of orbital debris, offers a magnetic capture system using its ELSA-d satellite. Launched on March 22, the satellite entered orbit at an altitude of about 550 km before going through a commissioning phase. The ship has just successfully completed phase 3a of the demonstration phase.

space debrisELSA-d is designed to deorbit satellites at the end of their life. Credit: Astroscale

During this test, carried out on August 25, the spacecraft extended its capture mechanism to which the client module (the fake space debris) was “locked”. This module then moved away from the ship, which removed its capture mechanism before extending it again without the goal of recovering the client module.

“This has been a fantastic first step in validating all of the key technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations and capture in space,” said Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Astroscale. “We are proud to have proven our magnetic capture capabilities and delighted to advance in-orbit service with ELSA-d”.

space debrisCredits: Astrosclae screenshot

The ship is now preparing for phase 4a, during which it will practice maneuvering autonomously near the client module before its capture. Phase 4 will then involve the capture of the free-falling module. The ship will fly over the module and inspect it from every angle during phase 5. For phase 6, ELSA-d will deorbit with the module, then move on to phase 7, during which it will empty all propellants. and battery fluids before hitting the atmosphere.

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