Japan’s ‘Orbiting Garbage Truck’ Is A Flop

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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An experimental Japanese mission to remove “space junk” from Earth’s orbit has utterly failed, according to government officials.

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) worked with NASA to develop a tether-like device to catch and drag space junk out of orbit around Earth. The effort was intended to neutralize space debris from cast-off equipment from old satellites and pieces of rocket. Problems arose quickly and JAXA suspect that the tether was unable to be deployed.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” Dr. Koichi Inoue, Japan’s leading researcher on the tether, told reporters.”It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

JAXA’s device was an electrodynamic tether made from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminium. The tether was supposed to generate electricity by swings through the Earth’s magnetic field, which it would use to slow down space junk until it was pulled it into a lower orbit where it would ultimately burn up.

More than 50 years of human space exploration since the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957 has produced an extremely hazardous belt of orbiting debris. Scientists estimate that there are currently more than 100 million pieces of debris in orbit and that they pose a growing threat to future space exploration. Satellites and the ISS itself have logged more than 100 minor collisions with space debris every year.

Even the U.S. Department of Defense is worrying that debris could make it very hard to operate military satellites.

The U.S. paid for 84 percent of the costs associated with building the ISS while Japan’s contribution was smaller and largely limited to technical support. The last American Space Shuttle to the ISS launched five years ago in July, but NASA still can’t put men into space without Russian cooperation due to President Barack Obama’s cuts to the agency’s exploration and spaceflight capability. Russia has repeatedly threatened to block America access to the $150 billion ISS in response to U.S. sanctions.

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