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Japan launches space trash collector to ISS

Scientists estimate 100 million pieces of space junk are currently circling Earth.

By Brooks Hays
Japan launches space trash collector to ISS
After a successful launch, Japan's cargo ship is headed to the International Space Station to deliver a tether designed to clean up space junk. Screenshot via JAXA/YouTube

MINAMITANE, Japan, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- Japan's space agency, JAXA, has successfully launched a spacecraft carrying a large magnetic tether designed to redirect space junk toward Earth's atmosphere.

The cargo ship launched from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center on December 9. The H-II Transfer Vehicle model -- called "Kounotori," Japanese for "white stork" -- has been Japan's go-to transport system, used to deliver food and equipment to the Japanese Experiment Module and the International Space Station.

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The latest iteration, HTV6, is tasked with delivering a space junk-collecting tether to ISS.

"The launch vehicle flew as planned, and at approximately 15 minutes and 11 seconds after liftoff, the separation of HTV6 was confirmed," JAXA reported in a news update.

Scientists estimate 100 million pieces of space junk are currently circling Earth. Most are quite small, but even a screw whizzing through space at high speed can do considerable damage to a satellite or space station. Japan's tether technology is an attempt to address the growing and potentially dangerous mess of space debris.

The electrodynamic tether consists of a net-like combination of thin stainless steel and aluminum wires. It was designed by JAXA engineers with the help of researchers from Nitto Seimo Co., a Japanese fishing net company.

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The net-like tether will be extended from the space station by a robotic arm. It will generate a force strong enough to influence the orbital trajectory of space debris, directing pieces of junk toward Earth's atmosphere where they will burn up.

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