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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 (opens in new tab)" (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
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. 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.