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

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TOKYO – When China successfully dragged a dead satellite into “graveyard orbit” this year, it worried experts in Japan, who are trying to put their country at the forefront of the global space junk disposal market.

Some interpreted the Chinese prowess as a demonstration of its ability to attack orbit—the ability to engage other satellites in an unfriendly, intimate manner. Technology Japan is racing to build.

With the onset of commercial space activities, the amount of debris orbiting the planet poses a risk of collision. Companies Around the globe, scientists are working on ways to send this debris back to Earth so it burns up at the extreme temperatures of re-entry.

There are no rules on who is responsible for the cleanup — or space debris mitigation, as it’s called — but Japan intends to play a key role in their development. The country has strengthened cooperation with the United States A response to China’s growing space capabilities.

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

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Low Earth orbit is full of junk. Decades of exploration have resulted in thousands of defunct pieces of equipment and satellites orbiting the planet at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour. Some are as big as marbles, others as big as a school bus.

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Dealing with space debris requires the cooperation and trust of countries, especially the top polluters – the US, China and Russia. But it was not enough due to the cold state of relations between Washington and Beijing and Moscow. In 2021, the Chinese accused the United States of violating international treaty obligations after maneuvering to avoid the fall of their space station. Starlink satellites are operated by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said cooperation 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 has that, and the US certainly does not.” -Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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

Although US mitigation efforts have yet to begin, Japan is moving forward rapidly. Its Aerospace Exploration Agency has teamed up with Tokyo-headquartered Astroscale to complete the world’s first debris cleanup mission and offer daily cleanup services until 2030.

Astroscale is also developing in-orbit refueling and repair technologies for satellites that prevent them from wearing out as quickly and help extend their lifespan. The same technologies allow Astroscale missions to refuel in space and remove more debris each time.

“Space is big, but orbits around Earth are not. The highways we’re using are limited,” said Chris Blackerby, a former NASA employee and chief operating officer of Astroscale. “So if we keep putting things there and leaving them there, disaster will happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when. We must reduce this threat.”

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Working with Astroscale, the Japanese government is trying to set standards for companies and countries. Earlier this year, the government began the process of creating rules and regulations for entities involved in space debris disposal research and missions. The goal is to make transparency and reporting the norm, which experts say is important to avoid suspicion and potential conflicts between competitors.

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“Setting a precedent is a great 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 do this, then China will have to explain why China is doing something different than Japan.

Companies in North America, Europe and Australia are following suit. In the United States, where the FCC recently cut the rule for “de-orbiting” satellites from 25 years to five, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are both busy. Canada’s Obruta Space Solutions has contracted with that country’s space agency to develop debris removal technology. Swiss startup ClearSpace is doing just that with the European Space Agency.

Chinese companies are also paying attention to this issue. Origin Space, a Shenzhen-based space mining startup, launched a prototype robot last year that can capture space debris with a large net.

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

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In 2007, Beijing launched a ballistic missile at one of its defunct aerial satellites. The impact created the world’s largest cloud of space debris, and most of the more than 3,000 debris will remain in orbit for decades.

In January of this year, when its Shijian 21 satellite reached that defunct satellite, docked with it, and then towed it into a disposal orbit away from normal operating orbits, the country achieved a major waste reduction goal. China notified the UN Space Agency in advance of its action, which Suzuki called a good sign that Beijing recognizes the importance of transparency in these efforts.

On space debris disposal, China has supported and implemented the guidelines of the UN Office and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. For example, in May 2021, the government announced new standards for the management of small satellites, which require operators to submit plans for deorbiting them, as well as detailed safety measures in the event of malfunctions.

“China’s ambition is to be treated with respect and equality with the United States,” McDowell said. “There are areas like waste management where the U.S. has really dropped the ball, and the way has been opened for China to take the lead.”

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

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