Japanese space junk cleanup experiment fails

Posted on 7 Feb 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

A Japanese attempt to test a technology which could be used to clean up space junk has failed due to a technical fault.

The Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment (KITE) was to test the deployment of a long electrodynamic tether extending out into space. In the future, this technology could be used to latch onto a piece of space junk.

Measuring in at 700 meters long, the conductive tether would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, building up a charge which could slow the orbital speed of the space junk.

Eventually, this speed would be sufficiently slow that it would re-enter and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

JAXA, the Japanese space agency, had launched the KITE experiment aboard the HTV-6, a spacecraft which had first docked with the International Space Station (ISS), bringing supplies for the crew.

Before re-entering, JAXA planned to deploy KITE, however, due to an as-yet undetermined fault, the tether did not deploy.

After a week of attempts to get the experiment to work, JAXA was forced to give up and abandon the test.

The HTV-6 spacecraft itself then burnt up in the atmosphere at 15:06GMT on the 5th of February.

The failure of this experiment follows the failure of several earlier tests by Nasa of the same technology in the 1990s.

Kessler syndrome

While this test failed, it is likely that JAXA, and other space agencies, will continue to test different methods of removing space junk from orbit.

Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of known pieces of space junk, which pose an ever-rising threat to satellites as well as manned spacecraft.

Researchers theorize the should the amount of space junk continue to increase, it will eventually reach of a density where the number of collisions begins to cascade.

With each collision causing yet more space junk, eventually whole orbits could be rendered unsafe for spacecraft, in a process known as ‘Kessler syndrome’.

Aware of this problem, agencies are testing a vast array of different junk-removal techniques, including physical capture, suicide satellites, lasers, harpoons, and nets.