Space junk is accumulating in orbit around the Earth, and unfortunately, the number of things that continue to orbit Earth and become considered ‘space junk’ is growing with almost each and every major rocket launch.
Image Credit: Space Agency/REX/Shutterstock
Space junk includes the remnants of rockets, leftover materials from satellites that are no longer being used, and much more. Sometimes, these objects collide with one another, sending material plummeting to the Earth, and others plummeting towards other space junk, which can cause the objects to crumble and make even more space junk.
In some cases, the objects that get send towards Earth are much too large to burn up in the atmosphere, and cause very real threats to civilization.
Space junk could one day clutter our skies so badly that it would become nearly impossible to safely navigate a rocket through all the debris. With that said, experts are considering ways to help deal with the space junk problem, and Japan recently had experts working on a solution, until of course the plan turned belly-up rather quickly.
The plan was to use an electromagnetic tether, which was approximately 6 football fields in length, that would be connected to a cargo ship they were calling Kounotori. This would effectively collect junk and then attempt to ‘guide’ it back to Earth in a more controlled manner, which would obviously be much safer than allowing the stuff to just free-fall on its own.
On the other hand, the attempt to make this happen wasn’t successful, and JAXA had to humbly man-up and tell the world that the mission attempt had failed.
“We believe the tether did not get released,” the lead researcher Koichi Inoue said to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) in a statement. “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”
According to those involved in the experiment, the electromagnetic tether was launched on one of the recent cargo ships that was headed for the International Space Station, and it was expected to be deployed once it arrived there. Unfortunately, since it wasn’t working up to par, JAXA decided to end the experiment before kicking it into full-force, so they enabled the cargo ship to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere; a move that ended the experiment early.
Although Japan’s attempt is now a thing of the past, the European Space Agency also has plans to attempt to deal with the space junk problem by utilizing capture nets, which will slow down space junk orbits enough that Earth’s gravitational pull will simply grab ahold of it and pull it back in a controlled manner.
All attempts to clean up space junk have, so far, been unsuccessful. But space junk remains too much of a problem to ignore. Space junk also poses a risk to those on the International Space Station, as astronauts once almost had to evacuate to evade some unforeseen space junk that flew past it in close proximity.
It should be interesting to see if JAXA will return to the space junk clean-up business, or if the ESA’s attempt will fare any better. Perhaps some international teamwork between space agencies could yield greater results.