Earth’s orbit is getting crowded.
Last year, a record 2,409 objects were sent to orbit, the bulk of which were satellites settling into the increasingly cluttered region 1,200 miles above our planet’s surface known as low Earth orbit. Another 2,000-plus satellites have joined them so far this year, according to the UN’s Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space. As the presence of artificial objects in orbit grows, so too does the accumulation of debris, or space junk — and the risk of collisions. Dealing with existing waste and preventing its unchecked growth has become imperative, but it’s a problem that doesn’t have one simple solution.
Currently, the US Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 25,000 objects larger than 4 inches wide, most of which are concentrated in low Earth orbit, and there are an estimated millions of smaller objects still that are trickier to pinpoint. This includes everything from defunct satellites and spacecraft fragments to things as small as a paint chip, all of which can cause damage to other equipment due to the extreme speeds orbiting objects travel at. As yet, there have been no successful missions to remove extant debris from orbit. Proposals for removing this debris fall into two broad (and imperfect) categories: pushing them further from Earth into graveyard orbits where they pose less risk, or pulling them towards Earth where they’ll deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
One such system is being developed and tested by Astroscale. The company, headquartered in Japan, demonstrated a magnetic capture-and-release tactic in 2021 with its ELSA-d mission, which simulated the strategy using an extra satellite it brought with it as mock debris. In a real-world scenario, its magnet would lock on to debris floating through space and drag it down to deorbit. Astroscale is selling its own docking plates that satellite operators can affix to their equipment ahead of launches, so it can…