Aurora Propulsion Technologies will be sending up space junk removal tech on Rocket Lab’s Electron later this year

Aurora Propulsion Technologies, a Finnish company that develops thrusters and de-orbiting modules for small satellites, will be sending its technology to space for the first time. The company has signed on with Rocket Lab to send its inaugural AuroraSat-1 CubeSat into low Earth orbit aboard an Electron rocket rideshare mission in the fourth quarter of this year.

Aurora is part of a small number of startups that have emerged over the past few years whose technology could help solve a tricky problem that, for most of us, can be summed up as “out of sight, out of mind”: space junk.

Space junk, or orbital debris, includes any human-generated object in space that’s no longer functional. While the Department of Defense keeps track of around 27,000 pieces of space junk through its Space Surveillance Network, there are estimated to be millions of pieces of debris floating around in low Earth orbit. As the costs of launch and other technology continues to decline, LEO is only poised to grow more crowded in the coming years — which could mean more useless junk floating around us in the long-term.

The launch with Rocket Lab later this year is the opportunity for the company to demonstrate its technology in-space. AuroraSat-1 will have two modules. The first module will contain six “resistojet” thrusters, designed to help CubeSats quickly de-tumble and adjust their attitude control, or the satellite’s orientation. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brakes, which use an electrically charged microtether to generate drag for satellite de-orbiting.

The Plasma Brake will need to be installed on satellites prior to launch, Aurora CEO Roope Takala told TechCrunch. “Preparing for de-orbiting is increasingly becoming a requirement for flight permits. However, we are discussing with partners the possibility of in-orbit installation of Plasma Brakes to existing space junk,” he said.

AuroraSat-1 was originally scheduled to fly with in-space transportation provider Momentus on board a Space X Falcon 9 rideshare mission earlier this year, but that flight was halted after Momentus failed to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Regarding the switch-up, Takala said that “in light of Momentus’ difficulties, we had to re-manifest the satellite onto the now published Rocket Lab flight.” Aurora announced in March it had signed on to launch a satellite with Momentus in June 2022.

The story has been updated to include additional comments from Aurora CEO Roope Takala.