Japanese ‘Space Debris’ Mission Gets Underway

Japanese ‘Space Debris’ Mission Gets Underway

Rocket Lab USA Inc. has launched a satellite designed by a Japanese company that will study orbital debris.

The Feb. 18 launch of the mission for Astroscale Japan took place from Pad B at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

The “On Closer Inspection” mission was Rocket Lab’s second launch of the year and the Long Beach company’s 44th Electron launch overall. The company has contracts for 22 launches this year. 

The Electron rocket deployed Astroscale Japan’s Active Debris Removal satellite, which is designed to test technologies and operations for approaching and monitoring debris objects in orbit, which are also known as space junk.

Following the successful launch on Electron, the 150-kilogram satellite will now approach an aged, derelict rocket stage in orbit to observe it closely, understand how it behaves and determine potential methods for its assisted deorbiting in future, the Long Beach-based  company said. 

The rocket stage it will be observing is the Japanese H-2A upper stage, which was left in low-Earth orbit after the launch of the Gosat Earth observation satellite in 2009, Rocket Lab added.

The satellite will fly around the stage, which is 11 meters long and 4 meters in diameter, and inspect it with cameras and sensors. Astroscale’s full mission will take between three and six months to complete. 

Peter Beck, founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab, sent his congratulations to the Astroscale team on the mission, which paves the way for new and innovative ways to reduce orbital debris. 

“It’s a real honor to provide a dedicated launch service and enable the kind of precise orbital maneuvers required for an advanced mission like this,” Beck said in a statement. 

Nobu Okada, founder and chief executive of Astroscale, said that the launch marks another milestone toward the company’s efforts to grow its on-orbit servicing sector while creating a sustainable space environment. 

“We are grateful for the collaboration with Rocket Lab, whose expertise in dedicated launch services has been instrumental to the start of this groundbreaking mission,” he said in a statement. 

The satellite’s mission is the world’s first attempt to approach, characterize and survey the state of an existing piece of large debris through rendezvous and proximity operations, according to Astroscale. The satellite is designed to rendezvous with the stage of the rocket, demonstrate proximity operations and gather images to assess the rocket body’s movement and condition, the Japanese company said. 

Eddie Kato, president and managing director of Astroscale Japan, said that the launch of the satellite is a new chapter in the company’s history as the first mission it has contracted for a space agency to successfully reach orbit. 

The Astroscale spacecraft was selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for Phase I of its Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration program. Astroscale Japan is responsible for the design, manufacture, test, launch and operations of the satellite.

“This satellite is monumental for us as a company and for the entire sector, as the mission will demonstrate the essential (rendezvous and proximity) capabilities for future on-orbit services,” Kato said in a statement. “Thank you to all the Astroscale team, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, our partners and supporters for their commitment and dedication to getting us to this point.”

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