Japan’s Space Sweepers are taking it upon themselves to do a little spring cleaning of debris in space.
One hundred and seventy million pieces of space debris currently orbit the Earth, according to estimates from the European Space Agency (ESA).
Defunct satellites and other man-made objects rocket around the atmosphere at eight kilometers per second — 10 times faster than a bullet.
Some chunks are as big as a truck, others smaller than a dime.
But even the tiniest piece of cosmic junk poses an enormous threat to other satellites and spacecraft.
A collision with a one centimeter speck of space debris at orbital velocity, for example, has the equivalent energy force of an exploding hand grenade, according to Heiner Klinkrad, head of the space debris office at the ESA.
When an accident like this occurs, fragments scatter around space, increasing the risk of further accidents.
That’s where the Space Sweepers come in.
Singapore-based satellite services company Astroscale has recruited a team of specialist “Space Sweepers” to develop key technologies to destroy space debris by forcing it down into the atmosphere where it will burn up upon re-entry.
In 2016 the company secured $35 million in venture funding, the bulk of which came from Innovation Network Corporation of Japan.
“From the construction to the successful launch, it is an extremely challenging mission,” President of Astroscale Miki Ito told CNN.
From its manufacturing plant in Tokyo, Astroscale is currently developing two types of satellite.
One is a micro satellite that will collect real-time data on space junk that’s smaller than a millimeter. The data will be used to develop an up-to-date orbital debris map, which could then be sold to academics, international agencies and corporate satellite operators.
The other — called End-of-Life Service by Astroscale (ELSA) — will capture and remove defunct spacecraft belonging to satellite operators.
ELSA is currently in the design phase but Astroscale plans to use magnets and an undisclosed secondary method to catch satellites.
Once captured, ELSA would force the debris down to the Earth’s atmosphere and both would burn up.