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Up next: humans vs. space debris

Public, private sectors hurry to improve monitoring, clean up orbit

This image shows a possible future in which a ring of debris surrounds our planet, making orbital space impassable.

TOKYO -- The problem of space debris has caught the attention of both the public and private sectors.

In Japan, the JAXA space agency will reinforce its monitoring system to prevent small pieces of debris from damaging satellites and the International Space Station.

While the current system covers pieces of debris larger than 1.6 meters, JAXA will make it capable of tracking objects as small as 10cm or so.

For the project, JAXA will install a ground-based radar system, made by NEC, in Okayama Prefecture. Also, the capacity of its large-scale optical telescope will be upgraded by Mitsubishi Electric. In addition, JAXA will introduce an analysis system from Fujitsu to determine the kinds of debris and their orbit.

Although JAXA has been collecting its own data, it is also getting some from the U.S., which has superior accuracy in tracking space particles.

The agency has plans to upgrade its monitoring system to make it as accurate as that of the U.S.

The upgrade is to be started in fiscal 2017; trial operations could be held in fiscal 2020. The project is estimated to cost some 10 billion yen ($89.36 million).

As the number of outdated satellites, rocket boosters and discarded wreckages increases, so does the risk that they will collide with and damage satellites and/or the ISS.

This month, JAXA tested an unmanned transfer vehicle to remove debris in space but to no avail; the experimental Kounotori6 failed to work as planned.

In the private sector, Kawasaki Heavy Industries is developing a small satellite to gather space debris. A trial craft could be launched within three years. A practical satellite, if developed, would be the universe's first. It would be about a cubic meter in size and weigh around 100kg, Kawasaki officials said.

Kawasaki will use technologies it has accumulated in making industrial robots to develop an image sensor that can better follow debris.

Development of a device that holds on to space junk is already underway. After catching man-made objects, the planned multi-billion-yen craft would carry them into the atmosphere, where they would burn up once let go of.

The craft will be designed to grab two-stage rockets weighing some 5 tons and other pieces of junk.

Space-related businesses are flourishing, thanks to advances in small satellite technologies and other factors. But all the junk above our heads is not only in these companies' way, it is posing big risks.

Addressing the problem is an urgent matter.

U.N. deliberations on the issue are gathering steam, and Japan's government plans to require companies to keep from generating even more junk when they launch rockets.

Kawasaki expects demand for its planned satellite to come from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other parties in the rocket-launching business. It hopes to double or treble its space-related sales to around 10 billion yen in fiscal 2025.

Astroscale, a Singapore-based venture that has a production and development base in Tokyo, will launch a small satellite to monitor tiny pieces of debris in the second half of this year. Hundreds of millions of particles measuring 0.1 to several millimeters are said to exist in space.

Astroscale has already assembled a satellite and begun developing software. It will produce maps showing the locations of debris fields, then sell the maps to research institutes and companies in the aerospace industry.

Space debris has doubled in number over the past 20 years, and more is on the way now that satellites are getting smaller and private sector companies are hurling rockets into space.

Countermeasures need to be introduced before all the junk and particles already up there set off a chain reaction of collisions and leave behind a cloud of dust that makes orbital space impassable.

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