Friday morning, around 8:26 a.m. EST, the Kounotori spacecraft took off from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. The name of the Nippon satellite translates into English as stork. The cargo ship has been launched into orbit with the purpose of clearing space debris that could damage future space missions, satellites already circling the Earth, and the International Space Station.
According to the scientific community’s reports, there are approximately 100 million pieces of rocks or other space debris floating in Earth’s orbit. However, these are too small to be monitored and could jeopardize future space missions, as well as the safety of space modules already launched by NASA. Moreover, the space junk can reach impressive speeds of up to 17,000 miles per hour, which could pose a serious threat even to the International Space Station.
“Space debris is a real danger to operational satellites and new launches”, says the general manager of the Space Environment Research Center located in Canberra, Australia, Steve Gower.
He goes on to add that every time NASA prepares to launch a new satellite, the space agency has to come up with a plan to avoid space junk.
The Kounotori is basically a garbage disposal satellite that is going to dock with the International Space Station’s Harmony module. It will spend its next five weeks collecting space debris and pushing it into Earth’s lower orbit, where it will eventually burn up.
Japan’s space agency worked with a fishing company in order to develop the tether. Katsuya Suzuki is an engineer with Nitto Seimo, the Japanese fishnet manufacturer. He says that in their efforts to come up with the tether, the team has encountered difficulties when faced with intertwining the thin materials. The tether measures approximately 2,300 feet. However, the Nippon engineers say that future models will have to be at least 16,000 feet long in order to properly dispose of the space debris.
Also, this is not the first time Japan gets involved with clearing the space junk. In a study published in 2015, in Acta Astronautica, a team of engineers with the Riken research institute proposed blowing up the space clutter with an optic laser. According to the paper, the laser would have been mounted on the International Space Station, capable of blasting approximately 3,000 tons of space debris.
Image Source: Wikipedia