On the 20th of March, a world-first mission to show how technology can be used to help clean up debris in space blasted off into orbit. The project, named the End-Of-Life Services by Astroscale Demonstration (ELSA-D) launched from Kazakhstan on Saturday, and is currently being controlled by a UK base in Oxfordshire. The UK government funded the centre and the project, saying that they want to make Britain the hub for bases and new technology that can help service and retrieve older satellites.

First of all, what actually is space junk? Space junk is debris in space that comes in all sort of shapes and sizes – broken parts of old rockets, damaged satellites and cameras and gear dropped by astronauts when on missions all fall under the category. The European Space Agency estimates that there are around 9200 tonnes of space junk currently floating in orbit, which could cause problems for future exploration.

Space junk poses a huge risk to other satellites in orbit, as collisions with larger pieces can result in satellites being damaged or even destroyed which in turn causes more debris to break off. This poses a problem as the same satellites are often used for things such as GPS and location mapping, so any damage caused could greatly impact life on earth. It also poses a risk to astronauts working and living up in space, for example on the International Space Station, where fast moving debris can collide with the spacecraft at around 17,500 miles per hour and cause significant damage.

The ELSA-D is designed to help reduce this problem by tracking, locating and collecting moving pieces of debris in orbit. The main part of the system is the 175kg servicer, which is programmed to collect and safety remove the junk, while the 17kg client acts and behaves like a piece of space junk during the testing phase. The 2 spacecraft play a game of cat and mouse with the servicer chasing down the client, latching onto it using magnets then releasing the client to chase it down again. Once the demonstration is complete both parts are designed to fall out of orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the way down, so they don’t end up becoming space junk themselves.

When asked about the project, John Aurburn, the managing director of Astroscale UK said ‘Our team is very proud of have developed the mission control and ground systems for ELSA-D’. He went on to say that the team will ‘perform complex manoeuvres to demonstrate the release and capture of this debris, with the first semi-autonamous robotic magnetic capture of a piece of debris, tumbling through space, using advanced software and autonomous control technology’.

If the project is successful, it could have a revolutionary impact on how space junk is handled and sorted. The scientists behind the mission are hopeful that it will encourage more space clean-up plans in the future, leading to safer and more sustainable space exploration.