Astroscale's ADRAS-J mission, to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron in 2023, will rendezvous with an inspect an upper stage from a Japanese rocket left in orbit. Credit: Astroscale

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab will launch an Astroscale mission to rendezvous with a spent rocket stage in low Earth orbit, a prelude to eventually deorbiting the stage.

Rocket Lab announced Sept. 21 that it won a contract from Astroscale for the launch of its Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft. A Rocket Lab Electron will launch ADRAS-J from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in 2023.

ADRAS-J will rendezvous with and inspect an upper stage left in orbit by a Japanese launch. The Japanese space agency JAXA awarded Tokyo-based Astroscale a contract in 2020 for the mission as part of its two-phase Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration project. The second phase, which will involve an attempt to deorbit the upper stage, has not yet been competed by JAXA.

The mission requires a precise orbital insertion so that the spacecraft can reach the rocket stage. “Rendezvousing with a piece of debris on orbit, traveling at around 27,000 kilometers per hour, is a highly complex task that requires absolute precision when it comes to orbital deployment,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said in a statement. “Electron’s Kick Stage has demonstrated this precision across 18 missions, providing in-space transportation to place our customers’ satellites exactly where they need to go.”

In-situ inspection, like what ADRAS-J will perform, is one of several business lines for Astroscale, said Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer of the company, during a panel discussion at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, Conference Sept. 15. Other lines of business include satellite life extension and transfer.

Astroscale is best known, though, for developing technologies to enable deorbiting satellites at the end of their lives, as well as active debris removal. The company has been testing some of those technologies on its first spacecraft, End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d), which launched in March on a Soyuz rideshare mission.

Astroscale performed the first release and capture of a client spacecraft on ELSA-d Aug. 25, deploying the small spacecraft from the main one and then capturing it using a magnetic mechanism. A series of more complex tests, including attempting to capture the client while tumbling, are scheduled for the next several months, Lindsay said.

The launch contract is the second that Rocket Lab has announced this month. The company said Sept. 8 it won a contract for five Electron launches to deploy a 25-satellite internet-of-things constellation for French startup Kinéis. Those launches will begin in the second quarter of 2023.

Rocket Lab announced the contract after markets closed Sept. 21. Shares in Rocket Lab, which started trading publicly on the Nasdaq Aug. 25 after the completion of its merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), closed up about 0.5% at $14.54 Sept. 22, up nearly 40% from the end of its first day of trading.

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...