As commercial space activities take off, the amount of junk orbiting the planet poses an increasing threat of collisions. Businesses all over the world they are working to develop the means to tumble this junk down to earth so it will burn up in the extreme temperatures of reentry.
There are no rules governing who is responsible for cleaning up – or reducing space debris, as it’s called – but Japan intends to play a key role in their development. The country has intensified cooperation with the United States response to China’s growing space capabilities.
“In space, Japan has always been a country of second gear. First gear has always been the United States, the Soviet Union and, most recently, China,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a space policy expert at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Public Policy. “This is a golden opportunity for Japan, but time is very short.”
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Low Earth orbit is full of litter. Decades of exploration have left thousands of pieces of useless equipment and satellites circling the planet at 28,000 kilometers per hour. Some are the size of a marble, others the size of a school bus.
Dealing with space debris requires cooperation and trust between countries, especially the biggest polluters: the United States, China and Russia. But that’s scarce given the frosty relations between Washington and both Beijing and Moscow. In 2021, the Chinese accused the United States of violating international treaty obligations after their space station had to maneuver to avoid colliding with Starlink satellites operated by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.
Cooperation on this point “only works if the countries are willing to put international interests ahead of their own paranoia about military concerns, and it’s not clear if China is, and certainly not the US,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University. University. -Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The problem is that there is no international air traffic controller for space,” he added.
While US mitigation efforts are still in their infancy, Japan is making rapid progress. The Aerospace Exploration Agency is working with Astroscale, a company headquartered in Tokyo, to complete the world’s first debris removal mission and provide routine removal services by 2030.
Astroscale is also developing technologies to refuel and repair satellites in orbit, slowing their aging and extending their lifespan. Those same technologies would allow Astroscale’s missions to refuel in space, removing more debris each time.
“Space is big, but the orbits around the earth are not. The highways we use are limited,” said Chris Blackerby, a former NASA official who is Astroscale’s chief operating officer. “So if we keep putting stuff there and leaving it there, there will be an accident. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. We need to reduce that risk.”
By partnering with Astroscale, the Japanese government is trying to create standards for companies and countries to follow. Earlier this year, the government began drafting rules and regulations for entities involved in research and space debris removal missions. The goal is to make transparency and notice the norm, which experts say is important to avoid suspicion between competitors and potential conflict.
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“Setting a precedent is a great way to hold other countries accountable,” Suzuki said. “It will – not legally, but morally – bind other countries. And if China, for example, tries to find other ways to deal with this, then perhaps China should explain why China is doing something different than Japan.”
Companies in North America, Europe and Australia are in hot pursuit. In the United States, where a recent FCC decision has reduced the “de-orbiting” rule for satellites after mission from 25 years to five years, both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are engaged. Canada’s Obruta Space Solutions has a contract with that country’s space agency to develop debris removal technology. Swiss start-up ClearSpace is partnering with the European Space Agency to do the same.
Chinese companies are also focusing on the issue. Origin Space, a space mining startup based in Shenzhen, launched a prototype robot last year that can snag a large net of space debris.
The biggest need for clearance could soon be China’s. The country, which only installed its first satellite in 1970, aims to become a global space power by 2045. space station and a burgeoning commercial space industry, it is about to leave behind more rubble than others.
In 2007, Beijing launched a ballistic missile at one of its defunct weather satellites. The impact created the largest cloud of space debris ever, and many of the more than 3,000 remnants will remain in orbit for decades.
Still, the country quietly reached a milestone in debris reduction in January when its defunct Shijian 21 satellite docked with it and then towed into a so-called clearing orbit, well away from regular operational orbits. China gave the UN Space Affairs Office advance notice of its action, which Suzuki called a good sign that Beijing recognizes the importance of transparency in these efforts.
Regarding the removal of space debris, China has supported and followed the guidelines of the UN agency and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. For example, in May 2021, the government published new management standards for small satellites, requiring operators to submit plans to remove them from orbit, plus detailed safety measures in the event of failure.
“China’s aspiration is to be treated with respect and seen as an equal to the United States,” McDowell said. “There are areas like active debris removal where the US has really dropped the ball, and there is an opening for China to take over leadership.”
Kuo reported from Taiwan. Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, and Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.