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This magnified satellite could be the key to clearing space junk

Japanese space solutions mogul Astroscale has launched the first commercial mission to remove debris from our atmosphere. Spoiler: it involves a giant magnet.

It appears we’ve finally found a feasible solution to make a dent in the storm of space junk currently orbiting the Earth – though it may sound like a child’s submission to Blue Peter.

Developed by Japanese-UK space solutions firm Astroscale, the world’s first commercial clean-up mission to remove space debris is officially underway, and it involves an autonomous satellite equipped with a hefty magnet.

Billed as an ‘end of life service,’ the ELSA-d is a large 400lb satellite fitted with state-of-the-art sensors and a magnetic docking plate. Travelling along three cluttered orbit lanes between 500km and 550km above the Earth, it will soon search for discarded hardware from missions past.

Once junk is located, the magnetic plate will grab single items and pull them down into lower orbit where they will eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Sounds good in principle right?

Successfully shot into orbit over the weekend from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an operations team in the UK is now set to oversee the ELSA-d’s testing phase before putting the autonomous unit to work on a monumental clean up mission.

Accompanied on its launch by a piece of test junk weighing around 40lbs, operators are now trialling the ELSA-d’s ability to safely grab the dummy in a multitude of different states – the trickiest being while ‘tumbling’, which means a rolling or cartwheeling motion.

This bizarre solution has gone from the drawing board to Zero G surprisingly quickly, considering a revolutionary space sustainability framework was just drawn up by the UK government and the United Nations little over a month ago.

Nonetheless, given that there’s a purported 170 million pieces of debris to clear, we’ll definitely take an early start over nihilism. Crack on.

Add to that alarming sum the droves of low-orbit satellites being sent up by billionaire tech tycoons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and the growing number of satellite-based climate innovations developed by Space Agencies, and an estimated 990 units are set to be launched every year throughout the 2020s.

It’s essential then that we find ways of shifting dead satellites and general debris before cluttering the atmosphere further. If we don’t, space research will become dangerous, unpredictable, and will threaten to throw away millions of tax payers’ dollars.

How feasible Astroscale’s flagship project proves to be will become more apparent in the months of June and July after the ELSA-d sheds its training wheels.

‘The removal of hazardous space debris is not only environmentally important but is also a huge commercial opportunity for the UK,’ revealed UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway.

‘Companies like Astroscale are leading the way in demonstrating how we can make space safer for everyone.’