A recent JAXA space-tiddying mission has ended in failure after a vital piece of hardware failed to deploy, officials said on Monday.

Artist’s impression of the tether.
Image credits Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

We’ve gotten pretty good at sending stuff into space, but our recovery game hasn’t kept up. As such, there’s a lot of trash currently whizzing about in Earth’s orbit — old satellites no longer in use, pieces of old rockets, and all kinds of similar waste. There are over one million distinct bodies floating around if you count down to the really small bits, the ESA estimated in 2013.

And there’s only so much trash you can sweep under the rug before it gets out of hand. With that in mind, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a ship dubbed “Kounotori” to the ISS on Friday morning to try and sort this mess out.

Among supplies such as water and batteries, Kounotori (meaning “stork”) carried an experimental trash-capturing module that JAXA built with fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo.

The 700-meter-long (2,300 feet) electrodynamic tether — spun from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum — was designed to generate an electrical field while moving through our planet’s magnetic field, attracting junk to it. The idea was to anchor it to a spaceship and use the tether to slow down as many pieces of debris as possible. This would cause them to steadily drop towards the planet, touch the atmosphere, and burn up safely. A pretty solid plan.

The mission didn’t go as expected, however. JAXA encountered problems while trying to deploy the tether. Technicians tried to fix the problems for days but due to the limited time-window the mission could take place (the carrier ship used was launched in December towards the ISS and scheduled to re-enter the atmosphere on Monday) the agency had to abort the mission.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” leading researcher Koichi Inoue said. “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

Before the mission, agency spokespersons said that JAXA planned to take these missions on a regular schedule, and even to “attach one tip of the tether to a targeted object.” Hopefully, this setback won’t disrupt JAXA’s space-cleaning ambitions.

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Going off-world is never easy and success is never guaranteed. But not cleaning up Earth’s orbit could lock us on the planet for good. And that’s something we don’t want at all.

So take heart JAXA, we’re counting on you.

 

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