Ja­pan launch­ing ‘space junk’ col­lec­tor

ex­per­i­ment­ing to pull junk out of or­bit

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

TOKYO: Ja­pan launched a cargo ship Fri­day bound for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, car­ry­ing a ‘space junk’ col­lec­tor that was made with the help of a fish­net com­pany. The ves­sel, dubbed “Kouno­tori” (stork in Ja­panese), blasted off from the south­ern is­land of Tane­gashima just be­fore 10:27 pm lo­cal time (1327 GMT) at­tached to an H-IIB rocket.

Sci­en­tists at the Ja­pan Aero­space Ex­plo­ration Agency (JAXA) are ex­per­i­ment­ing with a tether to pull junk out of or­bit around Earth, clear­ing up tonnes of space clut­ter in­clud­ing cast-off equip­ment from old satel­lites and pieces of rocket. The launch was suc­cess­ful as “the satel­lite was re­moved from the rocket” and put into the planned or­bit about 15 min­utes af­ter the liftoff, JAXA spokesman Nobuyoshi Fu­ji­moto on Tane­gashima told AFP.

More than 50 years of hu­man space ex­plo­ration since the Soviet-launched Sput­nik satel­lite in 1957 has pro­duced this haz­ardous belt of or­bit­ing de­bris. There are es­ti­mated to be more than 100 mil­lion pieces in or­bit, pos­ing a grow­ing threat to fu­ture space ex­plo­ration, sci­en­tists say. Re­searchers are us­ing a so­called elec­tro­dy­namic tether made from thin wires of stain­less steel and alu­minum.

The idea is that one end of the strip will be at­tached to de­bris which can dam­age work­ing equip­ment-there are hun­dreds of col­li­sions ev­ery year. The elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by the tether as it swings through the Earth’s mag­netic field is ex­pected to have a slow­ing ef­fect on the space junk, which should, sci­en­tists say, pull it into a lower and lower or­bit.

Even­tu­ally the de­tri­tus will en­ter the Earth’s at­mos­phere, burn­ing up harm­lessly long be­fore it has a chance to crash to the planet’s sur­face. JAXA worked on the project with Ja­panese fish­net man­u­fac­turer Nitto Seimo to de­velop the cord, which has been about 10 years in the mak­ing. “The tether uses our fish­net plait­ing tech­nol­ogy, but it was re­ally tough to in­ter­twine the very thin ma­te­ri­als,” com­pany en­gi­neer Kat­suya Suzuki told AFP. “The length of the tether this time is 700 me­ter (2,300 feet), but even­tu­ally it’s go­ing to need to be 5,000 to 10,000 me­ter­long to slow down the tar­geted space junk,” he added.

Pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments us­ing a tether have been done in re­cent years. An­other spokesman for the space agency has said it hopes to put the junk col­lec­tion sys­tem into more reg­u­lar use by the mid­dle of the next decade. “If we are suc­cess­ful in this trial, the next step will be an­other test at­tach­ing one tip of the tether to a tar­geted ob­ject,” he added. The cargo ship launched Fri­day is also car­ry­ing other ma­te­ri­als for the ISS in­clud­ing bat­ter­ies and drink­ing water for the as­tro­nauts liv­ing there. —AFP

ANEGASHIMA SPACE CEN­TER, Ja­pan: This July 6, 2016 pic­ture shows the HTV6, an un­manned cargo space­craft, “Kouno­tori”, or “stork” in Ja­panese, be­ing as­sem­bled at the Tane­gashima Space Cen­ter in Tane­gashima is­land, Kagoshima pre­fec­ture. —AFP

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