Around 100 million pieces of trash cast off from satellites and rockets are circulating in space, causing hundreds of potentially dangerous collisions each year. Now Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) just blasted into orbit a space garbage collector, constructed with the help of a 106-year-old fishing net manufacturer, to help remedy the mess we humans have created.
Secure aboard the HTV6 or KOUNOTORI6 vessel, the space trash collector reached its destination successfully Friday. Now the world waits to see just how well the garbage gatherer works. Made of an aluminum and stainless steel mesh with the help of fishing net manufacturer Nitto Seimo, the gatherer’s tether should generate electricity as it passes Earth’s magnetic field to slow junk. Scientists think this action will cause the junk to move into lower orbits so it can burn up in our planet’s atmosphere without harming anyone on Earth.
The tether made with Nitto Seimo’s fishnet plaiting technology is 2,300 feet long. But engineer Katsuya Suzuki said ultimately such a tether would need to be much longer – as much as 16,400 to 32,800 feet long – “to slow down the targeted space junk.” For now, the shorter tether will test how the design functions, with more trials likely to follow. A JAXA spokesperson said they hope to start regularly using the trash collector by 2025.
Garbage can rocket through space at as much as 17,500 miles per hour, damaging expensive equipment and putting astronauts at risk, as harrowingly depicted in the 2013 movie Gravity. JAXA researcher Koichi Inoue told Bloomberg, “We need to take action on this massive amount of debris. People haven’t been injured by the debris yet, but satellites have. We have to act.”
The cargo ship carrying the innovative trash collector also ferried drinking water and six lithium-ion batteries to replace nickel-hydrogen batteries that currently store energy from the International Space Station’s solar array.