WASHINGTON — Astroscale says a mission to inspect an upper stage abandoned in low Earth orbit, as a precursor to removing it, is ready for launch, but a recent launch failure will keep it on the ground for the time being.

At a Sept. 28 briefing, executives with Astroscale said the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan, or ADRAS-J, spacecraft is complete and ready for its mission to rendezvous with and inspect an upper stage of an H-2A rocket.

“This is the world’s first attempt to safely approach and characterize an existing piece of large debris through rendezvous and proximity operations,” or RPO, said Gene Fujii, chief engineer of Astroscale. “The key to the mission is demonstrating the most challenging aspects of RPO technologies.”

The 150-kilogram spacecraft will launch on a Rocket Lab Electron and approach the H-2A upper stage left in low Earth orbit after the launch of the GOSAT Earth observation satellite in 2009. The spacecraft will then fly around the stage, 11 meters long and 4 meters in diameter, inspecting it with cameras to better characterize it for a future mission to remove it from orbit. The full mission will take between three and six months to complete.

Fujii said there are six key technologies needed for removing objects from orbit: launching into the proper orbit, absolute navigation to the client object, relative navigation with the client, flying around the client, capture and deorbiting. The first four of those will be demonstrated with ADRAS-J. “I would argue that the four that we’re demonstrating are some of the most difficult aspects of RPO.”

ADRAS-J will be the first commercial spacecraft to approach a non-cooperative object like a piece of debris. “For the first time, we’re going to be rendezvousing with a derelict object and taking resolved imagery to better understand what the debris looks like and how it behaves,” said Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer at Astroscale. “This is setting us on a path to better manage, understand and remediate the environment.”

That will help with future missions to remove debris, he said, by understanding how objects like upper stages are affected by the space environment. “ADRAS-J is also going to tell us if we have the right instruments, the right data coming down that we need to perform our job safely and reliably in the future,” he said, “when we want to dock with and make contact with these clients.”

Those technologies will feed into future missions to deorbit the stage and others like it, which pose particular hazards to the orbital debris population in low Earth orbit because of their mass. ADRAS-J is phase one of a Japanese space agency JAXA program called Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration, or CRD2. Phase two of CRD2, yet to be contracted, will involve sending a spacecraft to that stage to remove it from orbit.

Astroscale had planned to announce a November launch date for ADRAS-J at the briefing, but those plans are on hold after Rocket Lab’s Electron launch failure Sept. 19 caused it to suspend upcoming launches. That company is still investigating the failure and has not given any indication yet of when it will be ready to return to flight.

“Our partners at Rocket Lab are currently working hard conducting an analysis of the anomaly and we are wishing them all the best for a speedy return to flight,” said Chris Blackerby, chief operating officer at Astroscale.

Company officials at the briefing gave no indication they were considering alternative launch vehicles, preferring the flexibility offered by a dedicated Electron launch. “The impacts of any delays or timing is not going to be an issue for us,” said Fujii. “By having a dedicated ride, we can work very closely with the launch vehicle provider to ensure the most optimum target insertion that’s close to the client and optimizes the mission, and Rocket Lab has been able to provide that for us.”

“Whenever they’re ready to launch,” he said, “we’ll be able to do our mission.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...