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Space fishing: Japan to test 'magnetic net' for space junk

Published time: January 14, 2014 22:39
Edited time: January 15, 2014 15:40
A view of the Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris (AFP Photo)

A view of the Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris (AFP Photo)

Japan’s space agency is subcontracting a fishing net company to develop a technology to clean up the space junk that poses a direct threat to Earth’s communication networks. The mission is planned for 2019, with first tests scheduled for this February.

Tokyo’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Nitto Seimo Co, a company with almost a century-long experience in fishing net manufacturing, have already developed a space net measuring 1 kilometer long and 30cm wide in a bid to clear Earth’s orbit from some 100 million pieces of man-made junk.

Made of three strong and flexible lengths of metal fiber, the net is scheduled to be first tested in orbit in February. During the first phase a satellite will unreel a wire net of some 300 meters long that will use a specially generated magnetic field to reel-in the debris just above our atmosphere.

“We started work on this project about five years ago and we are all excited to see the outcome of this first test,”
Koji Ozaki, the engineer who heads the development team at Hiroshima-based Nitto Seimo, told the South China Morning Post.

The test is planned to last for about a year after which the net be pulled down by Earth’s gravity, incinerating the junk once the net enters the atmosphere.

The company hopes that their know-how will be able to complete the first part of the clean-up mission. The aim is to tackle the hazardous problem of debris damaging space satellites and spacecraft.

“Fishing nets need to be extremely strong because they need to be able to hold a large number of fish, but our tether does not have to be that strong,” Ozaki said. “It is more important that it is flexible.”

Trackable objects in orbit around Earth (AFP Photo / ESA)

If the mission is successful, Jaxa is planning further trials next year with a complete system deployment as early as 2019.

The majority of the 100 million pieces of human-made debris are orbiting some 700 to 1,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface. Most of them are comprised of small particles but around 22,000 measuring 10 cm or more are believed to be hazardous and pose a direct threat to satellites and spacecraft.

The debris is made up of space exploration leftovers including spanners, nuts, bolts, gloves and shards of space craft. Experts believe that global positioning systems, international phone connections, television signals and weather forecasts could be affected by ever increasing levels of space junk.

In order to protect the International Space Station from the fields of space debris, over 100 special anti-impact shields, the Whipple Bumpers, have been installed to tackle threat from objects whose velocities range between 3 and 18 kilometers per second. In addition, the orbital paths of spacecraft going to and returning from the ISS are constantly monitored for debris.