WASHINGTON — Astroscale, an orbital debris removal and satellite servicing company based in Japan, announced July 27 that it will be working with rocket maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on technologies to help clean up space junk.

The collaboration between Astroscale and a launch provider is significant because it could help address the growing problem of rocket upper stages left behind in orbit, which the European Space Agency identified as the most dangerous pieces of orbital debris.

A major concern cited by ESA is the breakup of satellites and rocket bodies caused when batteries or propellant tanks explode. 

Astroscale and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will “cooperate on the technical aspects required to advance sustainable space operations,” according to a news release. “Initial efforts will include discussions and development of debris removal methods for upper stages.”

Alison Howlett, spokesperson for Astroscale, said the agreement with MHI is to start discussions on “how to contribute to a sustainable space with debris removal a possibility. We are considering future opportunities that could include joint technology development or missions, and we have no fixed plans or timelines right now.”

The growth of orbital debris — human-made objects in orbit that no longer serve any useful purpose — is a problem that is frequently talked about, but one for which no solutions have been developed. 

At the G7 Leaders’ Summit last month, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union pledged to “take action to tackle the growing hazard of space debris as our planet’s orbit becomes increasingly crowded.”

The U.S. government estimates there are more than 23,000 orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters in diameter and more than 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 centimeters. Debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and create collision hazards to the rapidly increasing number of new satellites being launched each year.

Pentagon space policy official John Hill told SpaceNews that the Defense Department is committed to reduce the creation of orbital debris but currently there are no plans to remove U.S. upper stages. 

“The reality is that for the first several decades of space activity, governments, mostly the United States and the Soviet Union, conducted most of the space operations, and the original practices were not taking into account the kinds of things you have today regarding debris management,” Hill said.

The U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices (ODMSP) were established in 2001 to address the increased presence of orbital debris in the near-Earth space environment. The guidelines were most recently updated in December 2019.

So far only Japan’s space agency JAXA and Europe’s ESA have funded missions to remove the removal of debris from orbit.  

Astroscale was selected by JAXA as a commercial partner for for a debris removal demonstration project. The next phase of that project will involve the actual removal of an upper stage from orbit.

ESA selected Swiss startup ClearSpace-1 to attempt a debris removal mission currently planned for 2025.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...