From laser beams and wooden satellites to galactic tow truck services, startups in Japan are trying to imagine ways to deal with a growing environmental problem: space debris.
Junk-used satellites, rocket parts, and collision debris have been piling up since the beginning of the space age, with the problem accelerating in recent decades.
“We are entering an era where many satellites will be launched one after the other. Space will become more and more crowded,” said Miki Ito, CEO of Astroscale, a “space sustainability” company.
“Simulations suggest that space will not be usable if we continue like this,” she told AFP. “So we must improve the celestial environment before it is too late.
The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates about a million pieces of debris more significant than one centimeter in Earth’s orbit – large enough to “disable a spacecraft.”
They’re already causing problems, from the near-miss of a Chinese satellite in January to a five-millimeter hole punched in a robotic arm on the International Space Station last year.
“It is difficult to predict exactly how fast the amount of space debris will increase,” said Toru Yamamoto, a senior researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
But “it’s an issue that raises real concerns about the sustainable use of space.”
With satellites now crucial for GPS, broadband, and banking data, collisions pose a significant risk to Earth.
Tadanori Fukushima saw the scale of the problem in his work as an engineer at Tokyo-based satellite operator and broadcaster SKY Perfect JSAT.
“The stationary satellite would receive about 100 warnings of approaching debris a year,” he told AFP.
International, “satellite disposal guidelines” include rules such as moving used satellites to a “graveyard orbit,” – but the rise in debris means more is needed, experts say.
Fukushima launched an in-house startup in 2018 and envisions using a laser beam to vaporize the surface of space debris, creating a pulse of energy that will push the object into a new orbit.
The irradiating laser means there is no need to touch any debris, which is generally said to travel at about 7.5 kilometers per second – much faster than a bullet.
The project is experimental now, but Fukushima hopes to test the idea in space by spring 2025 in collaboration with several research institutions.
According to Fukushima, Japanese firms, along with some in Europe and the United States, are at the forefront of developing solutions.
Some projects are further along, including a space “tug” that uses a magnet to collect malfunctioning satellites.