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Astroscale to test space junk cleanup tech with 'ELSA-d' launch in 2021

Astroscale's ELSA-d mission will launch in March 2021 to test space junk-removal tech.
Astroscale's ELSA-d mission will launch in March 2021 to test space junk-removal tech. (Image credit: Astroscale)

Technology that could help humanity get a handle on the growing space-junk problem will get an orbital test early next year.

The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission will launch in March 2021 atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, representatives of the Japan-based company Astroscale announced last week.

"We now have the launch in our sights," ELSA-d project manager Seita Iizuka said in a statement. "The ELSA-d program demonstrates complex and innovative capabilities that will support satellite operators in realizing options for their post-mission disposal strategies and establish Astroscale as a global leader in the on-orbit servicing market."

Related: 7 wild ways to destroy orbital debris

ELSA-d consists of two spacecraft that will launch together — a 385-lb. (175 kilograms) "servicer" and a 37-lb. (17 kg) "client." The servicer sports rendezvous tech and a magnetic capture mechanism, both of which will get a workout during the mission's time in orbit.

"The servicer will repeatedly release and dock with the client in a series of technical demonstrations, proving the capability to find and dock with debris," Astroscale wrote in the ELSA-d mission press kit. "Demonstrations include client search, client inspection, client rendezvous and both non-tumbling and tumbling docking."

The main goal is to demonstrate tech that could be used to de-orbit dead or dying satellites and other pieces of space junk. There's a lot of debris circling our planet already, and the numbers are bound to grow as launch and satellite-development costs continue to fall and companies assemble huge broadband constellations in low Earth orbit. 

Humanity therefore needs to start tackling the debris issue in a serious way, many experts say. A number of potential strategies could be employed, including making sure that spent rocket stages fall back to Earth shortly after launch; requiring every satellite to have a propulsion system that allows it to maneuver away from potential collisions; and equipping spacecraft with long, drag-increasing tethers that will bring them down quickly when their operational lives are over.

Active debris removal will be a big part of the picture as well, if Astroscale's plans bear fruit. And the Japanese company isn't alone in its ambitions. Last year, for example, the University of Surrey-led RemoveDebris project demonstrated a dramatic capture technique, firing a harpoon into a target while zooming around Earth.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.