Capitalism in space: The Japanese-based company Astroscale has successful completed its first test in orbit of a magnetic capture device designed to someday remove for space junk.
Launched on March 22, ELSA-d (short for “End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration”) brought with it to orbit a 37-pound (17 kilograms) cubesat fitted with a magnetic docking plate. During the experiment on Wednesday (Aug. 25), ground controllers first remotely released a mechanical locking mechanism attaching the cubesat to the main 386-pound (175 kg) removal craft, Astroscale said in a statement. The two satellites were still held together by the magnetic system, which is responsible for capturing the debris.
The cubesat was then released completely and recaptured before floating too far away from the main spacecraft. Astroscale said on Twitter that this maneuver was repeated several times. This short demonstration enabled Astroscale to test and calibrate rendezvous sensors, which enable safe approach and capture of floating objects.
Engineers in the coming weeks plan to do even more challenging tests of ELSA, including a capture attempt where the target is made to tumble like an out-of-control satellite.
Eventually the company hopes to sell its target technology to satellite makers so that its satellites will be able to capture them. It already has a deal with OneWeb to develop this technology for its satellites, whereby one of its clean-up satellites could capture a bunch of defunct OneWeb satellites on one flight and deorbit them safely.
Whether this magnetic capture technique could be used on satellites with metal but no specifically designed target is unclear. If so it would place Astroscale a strong position to gain a large portion of the space junk removal business.
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