After the unfortunate turn of events that led to the Russian mission carrying crucial supplies for the International Space Station exploding in midair, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has launched a cargo ship for the same destination. Also on-board is a “Space Junk Collector” that has been manufactured with the the help of a fishnet company.
The Junk Collector is part of an experiment by Japanese Scientists, who are testing a tether-like structure that they hope, will be able to pull junk out of the orbit around Earth. Trust the Japanese to use every available opportunity to innovate and experiment.
In case you are wondering, there is plenty of junk in space — in fact, a surprising amount considering that only a handful of humans have ever had the opportunity to visit. According to data from various relevant sources, there was an estimated 170 million pieces of junk smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 670,000 debris 1–10 cm, and around 29,000 larger debris in orbit. Take a look.
Top Down View Of Space Junk:
And while down on earth, we have the option of sweeping some junk under our carpets, there are no carpets in space. And even a teeny weeny half penny has the potential to do some serious damage to satellites, astronauts and even the ISS itself — considering the massive speeds at which stuff hurtles through in space. Many of these objects are moving at speeds of up to 28,000km/h — Not a very pleasant prospect if you plan to have anything valuable, such as communication satellites anywhere around it.
This is exactly where Japan’s newly launched automated cargo ship Kounotori (Stork) comes in. Along with supplies, the ship is also carrying a junk collector. The collector consists of an electrodynamic tether that is made up of thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum. Scientists are planning to position the collector in such a way that one end of the strip will attach to debris.
Considering that it is made of conducive metals, the tether will also generate a fair amount of energy as it swings through the Earth’s magnetic field. Thats due to something called the Faraday’s law. Meanwhile, the current produced is expected to slow down the space junk. As the junk is slowed, it will lose energy and hopefully, will start feeling the effects of gravity. If all goes as according to the plan, the junk will then be pulled into the atmosphere where it will burn up.
Japan collaborated with a 106-year-old Japanese fishing net maker, Nitto Seimo Co. in order to come up with the perfect design for the tether. As per a company official:
The length of the tether this time is 700 metre (2,300 feet), but eventually it’s going to need to be 5,000 to 10,000 metre-long to slow down the targeted space junk.
There are certainly a lot of ifs involved. However, the idea is theoretically sound and Japan is testing something that could prove to be extremely useful in getting rid of debris. If things work out this time, there could be more tests soon.
If we are successful in this trial, the next step will be another test attaching one tip of the tether to a targeted object.
Japan hopes to put the tether to regular use by the middle of the next decade.