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Trashed: Stunning Image Shows First-Ever Up-Close Shot of Space Debris in Orbit

Japan Captures First Image of Space Debris From Orbit
Source: Astroscale

The first close-up image of space debris from a Japanese company.

May 9 2024, Published 1:03 p.m. ET

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A pioneering Japanese company has achieved a remarkable feat in space technology: capturing the world's first up-close image of a single piece of space debris.

This groundbreaking achievement was made possible by maneuvering a satellite alongside the targeted debris. This initiative marks the initial phase of an ongoing endeavor aimed at tackling the growing issue of space junk that poses significant hazards in Earth's orbit.

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While the vast expanse of space may appear boundless, the reality is quite the opposite. Since the launch of the first satellite in 1957, the space surrounding our planet has become increasingly congested, Live Science reported.

Over the decades, a plethora of human-made debris, ranging from used rocket components to defunct satellites and minuscule paint flecks, has accumulated in Earth's orbit. This accumulation, totaling over 9,900 tons of space junk, presents a hazardous obstacle course for newly deployed satellites and spacecraft.

Even the smallest debris fragment can inflict substantial damage with its momentum, posing risks not only to space missions but also to terrestrial populations upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

The longer these fragments linger in orbit, the greater the proliferation of space debris becomes. Collisions between inactive satellites or rocket remnants exacerbate the issue, shattering larger objects into smaller, harder-to-track fragments, heightening the threat to operational satellites.

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Recognizing the urgency of addressing this pressing issue, space agencies worldwide are actively pursuing solutions to mitigate the risks posed by space debris.

Recently, a Japanese private space company took significant strides in this direction. In a successful demonstration conducted in mid-April, Astroscale's spacecraft adeptly identified, approached and photographed a sizable fragment of orbital debris — the upper stage of a Japanese H-IIA rocket, which has encircled the Earth since 2009.

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This milestone testifies to the craft's capability to maneuver in close proximity to space debris, laying the groundwork for future removal missions.

Astroscale's achievement has garnered recognition and collaboration from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This partnership has propelled Astroscale into JAXA's Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration initiative, underscoring the company's commitment to space sustainability.

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Currently, Astroscale is charting the course for the next phase of its mission, slated to remove a fragment of debris utilizing a robotic arm attached to the spacecraft, guiding the debris into a controlled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

However, Astroscale is not alone in this endeavor. Space agencies worldwide are actively engaged in debris mitigation efforts.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is poised to launch its ClearSpace-1 mission in 2025, dedicated to space debris removal. Similarly, NASA is collaborating with six private U.S. space companies to develop its own debris removal program. Additionally, Astroscale's U.K. branch is gearing up for a cleanup mission slated for the near future.

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