Japan and China race to develop the technology to remove junk from space

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TOKYO – When China successfully pulled a dead satellite into “graveyard orbit” this year, it alarmed experts in Japan as they try to keep their country at the forefront of the world’s expanding market for space-junk removal.

Some have interpreted China’s achievement as a demonstration of orbit-aggression capability — the ability to make close, unwelcome approaches to other satellites. The technology involved is a precursor to what Japan is racing to build.

With the onset of commercial space activities, the amount of junk orbiting the planet increases the risk of collisions. Companies Around the world people are working to develop ways to send this junk tumbling toward Earth so it can burn up in the extreme temperatures of reentry.

No rules govern who is responsible for the cleanup or mitigation of space debris – but Japan intends to play a leading role in their development. The nation has increased cooperation with the United States A response to China’s growing space capabilities.

“In space, Japan has always been a second gear country. The first gear has always been the United States, the Soviet Union and, more recently, China,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a space policy expert at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy. “This is a golden opportunity for Japan, but time is running out.”

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Low Earth orbit is full of debris. Decades of exploration have left behind thousands of pieces of now useless equipment and satellites that orbit the planet at 17,500 miles per hour. Some the size of a marble, others as big as a school bus.

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Dealing with space debris requires cooperation and trust among countries, especially top polluters such as the United States, China and Russia. But that is in short supply, given the icy state of relations between Washington and both Beijing and Moscow. In 2021, the Chinese accused the United States of violating international treaty obligations after they had to maneuver to avoid crashing into their space station. Starlink satellites are operated by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.

Collaboration on this issue “will only work if countries are willing to put international interests ahead of their own paranoia about military concerns, and China clearly isn’t, and the US certainly isn’t,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard. -Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“The problem is that there is no international air traffic controller for space,” he said.

While US efforts at mitigation are still nascent, Japan is making rapid progress. Its Aerospace Exploration Agency has teamed up with Tokyo-headquartered AstroScale to complete the world’s first debris removal mission and offer routine removal services by 2030.

AstroScale is developing technologies to refuel and repair satellites in orbit, preventing rapid obsolescence and helping to extend their lifespan. The same technologies allow AstroScale’s missions to refuel in space and therefore remove more debris each time.

“Space is big, but orbits around Earth are not. The highways we use are limited,” said Chris Blakerby, a former NASA official who is AstroScale’s chief operating officer. “So if we put things there and leave it there, an accident is going to happen. It’s not a thing, it’s a matter of when. We must minimize that risk. “

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By working with AstroScale, the Japanese government is trying to create standards for companies and countries to follow. Earlier this year, the government began the process of drafting rules and regulations for entities involved in space-debris-removal research and operations. The goal is to make transparency and notification the norm, which experts say is important to avoid suspicion among competitors and possible conflict.

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“Setting a precedent is a good way to hold other countries accountable,” Suzuki said. “It binds other countries — not legally, but morally. And if China, for example, is trying to find different ways to approach this, China might have to explain why it’s doing something different than Japan did.

Companies from North America, Europe and Australia are also on the hunt. In the United States, a recent FCC decision cut the rule for “de-orbiting” satellites from 25 years to five, Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are engaged. Obruta Space Solutions in Canada has a contract with that country’s space agency to develop debris removal technology. Swiss start-up ClearSpace is working with the European Space Agency to do the same.

Chinese companies are also paying attention to this issue. Origin Space, a Shenzhen-based space-mining startup, released a prototype of a robot last year that scavenges space debris through a large net.

China may soon be most in need of cleanup. The country, which launched its first satellite only in 1970, aims to become a global space power by 2045. And with more than 500 satellites in orbit as of April, more rocket launches than any country in years, its own space station under construction and a growing commercial space industry, it’s poised to leave more debris behind than any other.

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In 2007, Beijing launched a ballistic missile at one of its inactive weather satellites. The impact created the largest cloud of space debris, and more than 3,000 pieces of debris remained in orbit for decades.

Yet the country quietly achieved a milestone in debris mitigation this January when the Shijian 21 satellite reached the defunct satellite, docked with it and then towed it away from normal operating orbits into what is known as a disposal orbit. China notified the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in advance of its move, which Suzuki called a good sign that Beijing recognizes the importance of transparency in these efforts.

In removing space debris, China has supported and followed the guidelines of the UN Office and Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. For example, in May 2021, the government announced new management standards for small satellites, requiring operators to submit plans to de-orbit them and detailed safety measures in case of malfunctions.

“China’s ambition must be treated with respect and seen as equal to that of the United States,” McDowell said. “There are areas like active debris removal where the US has really dropped the ball and China has an opportunity to take the lead.”

Kuo reports from Taiwan. Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan and Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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