Japan: failure of experimental space-waste cleaner

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) worked with NASA to develop a tether-like device to catch and drag space junk out of orbit around Earth.

After the HTV left the Space Station on January 27, KITE was expected to deploy, but the experiment hit an unknown snag that prevented the tether from unfurling it in the week between undocking from the station and re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The mission was really a failure, as the attempt to return the transporter was experimental and it completed its main mission of delivering supplies to the International Space Station successfully. The effort was meant to neutralize space debris from cast-off equipment from old satellites and pieces of rocket. The position of the tether relative to the craft could be changed by the use of force that's generated by an electric current and the Earth's magnetic field. In the future, this technology could be used to latch onto a piece of space junk. It intentionally burned up in Earth's atmosphere at 10:06 a.m. EST on February 5 (12:06 a.m. Japan Standard Time), according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

If we continue creating space debris, we may render some orbits around Earth unusable, limiting the number of communications satellites and other spacecraft we can send to space.

Before re-entering, JAXA planned to deploy KITE, however, due to an as-yet undetermined fault, the tether did not deploy. The device would then carry the debris to a lower orbit, where it would enter the atmosphere and burn up before colliding with the Earth's surface. Whipping around the planet at high speeds, tiny bits of space junk pose a hazard to equipment and human life.

At least that's how it was supposed to go. Both the craft and the space junk would, in theory, incinerate when they re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

"We believe the tether did not get released", leading researcher Koichi Inoue said.

Disappointing, sure, but certainly not the end of the world. Given the risks involved - and the ever-increasing amounts of debris appearing in space - we have little choice but to come up with a viable solution.


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