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Japanese space agency to trial electric cable for space junk removal

Kyodo

The space agency is planning an experiment to remove simulated space junk as part of efforts to develop a simple and inexpensive disposal system for objects that might puncture the International Space Station or destroy satellites.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said scientists will try to slow a cylindrical object and steer it toward the atmosphere, where debris typically burns up.

Space junk beyond a certain size is monitored by the U.S. military but there is currently no effective means of removing it.

The experimental equipment has been loaded in the Kounotori 6 cargo transporter, being prepared for launch this fiscal year from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture. The experiment is expected to take place this fall.

After delivering supplies to the ISS, which orbits at an altitude of 400 km, the Kounotori transporter will descend to an altitude of 380 km. It will attach a 700-meter cable to the simulated space debris, an object weighing 20 kg, and apply an electric current to it.

The cable is composed of many thin metal strings and was jointly developed by JAXA and a manufacturer of fishing nets in Hiroshima Prefecture.

The debris disposal method relies on how objects move when an electric current is applied in a magnetic field. The agency will test whether the object can be shunted toward the atmosphere by applying a force against its direction of travel.

The agency is not planning to dispose of actual space debris in the test but it believes the same mechanism should work for items of concern.

After completing the test, the transporter will detach the electric cable and enter the atmosphere, where it will burn up.

Defunct satellites and pieces of rockets are orbiting the Earth at speeds of around 7 km per second. Even small fragments can be fatal to satellites and to human life.

The agency says it may launch a small junk-removal satellite aboard an H2-A or H2-B rocket in the future.