Astroscale sets March 2021 for first commercial orbital debris removal demonstration

Japanese startup Astroscale is aiming for March 2021 for a launch of its first-ever active orbital debris removal mission. This is a demonstration of its technology that it hopes to use to help ensure that low-Earth orbit becomes a sustainable environment for commercial activity as it becomes increasingly crowded thanks to the rapid pace of new spacecraft launches.

This demonstration mission, which is called the “End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration” (ELSA-d for short) will take off from Kazakhstan, launched via a Russian Soyuz rocket. The actual demonstration itself will see Astroscale’s payload, which includes both a “servicer” (which represents the actual debris removal component) and a “client” (which represents any potential satellite or space junk that Astroscale might eventually be tasked with removing).

The servicer unit will use magnets to “capture” the client, docking with it multiple times to show its efficacy, while the client remains stationary and while it emulates an end-over-end tumbling motion that is common for a lot of defunct orbital debris. The purpose of the mission is to show that Astroscale’s technology for seeking out and finding targets for removal, as well as proper target identity verification and docking/release procedures all work as the startup intended.

Low-Earth orbit space junk removal is half of Astroscale’s approach to making space more sustainable for commercial and research activities — the other is on-orbit servicing of geostationary satellites, which tend to be larger and more expensive and occupy an orbital band deeper out in space. The company recently acquired assets of an Israeli company focused on that endeavor in order to bolster that parallel mission.