For First Time, Humanity Is Taking Steps To Remove A Dead Rocket From Earth’s Orbit

Space around Earth is polluted. For 70 years, several nations around the world have been sending stuff up, caring very little about what would happen after their work was done. This space junk includes massive satellites, rocket pieces, and, for a time, even a spatula and a camera. Removing this stuff is seen as crucial to keep space safe. Now a private company is attempting a first, important step in arriving at a solution.

The mission is called Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan or ADRAS-J. It was launched from New Zealand on February 18 and its mission officially began on February 22. The goal of this spacecraft is to reach and characterize a large piece of space junk that was not designed to be approached, is not emitting any signal, and is not communicating with Earth.


The target of this primary objective is a defunct Japanese H-2A rocket upper stage floating somewhere in low-Earth orbit. The piece of junk is “unprepared” – that’s lingo for an orbiting object that doesn’t have any visual aids that would allow detection and that has nothing that would facilitate docking.

It is 11 meters in length and 4 in diameter (36 and 13 feet, respectively) and it weighs about 3 tons. Nothing else is known about this piece of space junk. It could have been hit by other space junk and might now be damaged and moving in an uncontrolled way. Also, its movement around the Earth cannot be controlled so ADRAS-J has its work cut out for it.

“Rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) are fundamental for any future on-orbit servicing, ensuring the safe and secure approach of servicer spacecraft to client spacecraft and other objects such as space debris,” Astroscale Japan wrote in a press statement.

This first step will showcase that it is possible to find, approach, and characterize an unprepared piece of space junk. The mission will also show that ADRAS-J can then hold itself at a fixed distance from the target – the gold standard RPO.


If this mission is successful, ADRAS-J will demonstrate that it is possible to rendezvous with any object in orbit. That would be amazing in two ways. If you could approach a piece of space junk, you could hopefully attach to it and then take it on a controlled trajectory through the atmosphere, burning it.

This ability to approach any object could also be used to service satellites in orbit. The mission is ongoing and Astroscale Japan will update on the progress in due course.

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