A UK-led mission to trial a space debris removal system has blasted into space.
The world-first mission was initially due for launch on Saturday but, due to technical concerns, was postponed until Monday morning.
The two spacecraft that makes up The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d) – a servicer satellite to collect the debris and a client satellite to act as the debris – launched from Kazakhstan on a Soyuz rocket operated by GK Launch Services.
ELSA-d will be operated from the In-Orbit Servicing Control Centre – National Facility at the Satellite Applications Catapult (SAC) at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.
It is expected to start major demonstrations in around June or July.
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According to the European Space Agency, there is approximately 9,200 tonnes of space debris, with 34,000 objects larger than 10cm and 128 million objects between 1mm and 1cm.
It estimates there have been more than 560 break-ups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.
Rocket launches have placed more than 10,000 satellites in Earth’s orbit since 1957. Around 6,250 of these are still in space, but only 3,700 are still functioning.
A collision with space debris could have a big impact on satellite services people rely on every day, including mobile phones and online banking.
ELSA-d’s servicer satellite has been developed to safely remove debris from orbit. It is equipped with proximity detectors and a magnetic docking mechanism.
The client satellite is a piece of replica debris fitted with a plate that enables the docking.
During the mission, the servicer will repeatedly release and dock with the client in a series of technical demonstrations, indicating the capability to find and dock with defunct satellites and other debris.
“The removal of hazardous space debris is not only environmentally important but is also a huge commercial opportunity for the UK, with companies like Astroscale leading the way in demonstrating how we can make space safer for everyone,” said UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway.
Reader Q&A: Does the debris around Earth affect the atmosphere?
Asked by: Ray Grech, Malta
There is no direct effect, although the density of space debris is now so great that astronomical observations are often degraded by it. The main problem is that of collisions with operational spacecraft. With an average impact speed of 10km/s, any piece of debris larger than 1cm in diameter can cause a catastrophic impact.
There are more than 100,000 such objects, including several dropped by astronauts during spacewalks, such as a camera, a glove and a pair of pliers. Most, however, have come from exploding rocket stages and satellites. The larger objects are tracked and spacecraft (including the space shuttle) occasionally have to manoeuvre to avoid them.
The main threat to our weather from space junk is rather indirect: the density of the junk may become so great that it could hinder our ability to use weather satellites, and hence to monitor weather changes caused by our own ground-based pollution. The US, Russia, Japan, France and the European Space Agency have now issued orbital debris mitigation guidelines.
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