Waste management in space?

Japanese satellite operator Sky Perfect JSAT has established a subsidiary that will specialise in removing space debris from Earth’s orbit, to ensure a “sustainable space environment”.

A concept image showing what the space-based satellite laser will look like. Orbital Lasers plans to launch a prototype model into space in 2027. (PHOTO: Sky Perfect JSAT)

New company Orbital Lasers aims to develop and market a space-based satellite that can project a laser beam to actually ‘push’ pieces of man-made debris objects - mainly old satellite and rocket parts - back into Earth’s atmosphere.

“As a satellite operator, this debris issue is now regarded as an environmental problem as significant as global warming and marine plastic pollution,” said parent company Sky Perfect JSAT.

“SKY Perfect JSAT and Orbital Lasers are addressing this concern and aiming to contribute to the improvement of a sustainable space environment.”

To create its space-based satellite laser, the fledgling company plans to incorporate LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology into both its lasers and satellites.

LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that measures the distance to and shape of a target object by emitting laser light and using information obtained from the reflected light.

The space-based satellite laser will project a laser beam that can vaporize/ionize the surface of space debris. This creates a pulse of energy that can reorientate the object and slow it down.

This will allow it to fall towards the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will ultimately burn up.

According to Tadanori Fukushima, President & CEO of Orbital Lasers, the company is planning to launch a prototype of the satellite laser in 2027, and hopes to begin space debris removal services in 2029.

laser Satellite-CSKY Perfect JSAT Corporation The space-based satellite laser will project a laser beam that can 'push' debris back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. (IMAGE: Sky Perfect JSAT)

In its bid to become the first specialist in ‘space waste management’, the company will now carry out a conceptual study of earth observation LiDAR satellite systems and its future commercialisation.

The study is being commissioned by parent company Sky Perfect JSAT and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, commonly known as JAXA, which recently agreed a collaboration deal for the research.

Setsuko Aoki, Outside Director at SKY Perfect JSAT, said: “This is not just a new venture. This also qualifies as a part of Japan’s contribution to the global society whose urgent needs include the safe and sustainable use of outer space.”

Sky Perfect JSAT has previously commented on the growing amount of waste in the planet’s orbit.

In June 2020 it cited research from the European Space Agency (ESA) and from American space agency NASA, which estimated that there is more than 100 million pieces of debris flying around our planet.

However, recent figures (December 2023) from ESA now estimate that there is over 150 million pieces of debris - including 2,500 non-functioning communication satellites - in our orbit, amounting to some 11,500 tonnes.

Image of Increase in Orbital Space Debris-CKyushu UniversityCSKY Perfect JSAT Corporation Image showing the increase in Orbital Space Debris. (IMAGE: Kyushu University/Sky Perfect JSAT Corporation)

ESA, which is actively tracking around 35,000 pieces of debris, says that roughly 36,500 of the waste objects are bigger than 10 cm in size, and that around 1,000,000 measure between 1 cm and 10 cm, with another 130 million space debris objects sized between 1.0 mm and 1.0 cm.

According to NASA’s 2020 research, any piece bigger than 1.0 mm can potentially cause enough damage to end a satellite mission, due to the ultra-high speed at which they are flying through space - around 7.5 km per second.

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