Japanese startup Astroscale aims to launch its first active orbital debris removal mission in March 2021. This demonstration of its technology to help ensure that low-earth orbit becomes a sustainable environment for commercial activity as it becomes increasingly crowded thanks to the rapid pace of new spacecraft launches.
This demonstration mission, which is referred to as "End-of-Life-Services from Astroscale Demonstration" (ELSA-d for short), starts in Kazakhstan. launched via a Russian Soyuz rocket. The actual demonstration shows the Astroscale payload, which includes both a "servicer" (the actual debris removal component) and a "client" (representing a potential satellite or space debris that Astroscale may be tasked with removing is included.
The service unit uses magnets to "capture" the client and docks with it multiple times to demonstrate its effectiveness, while the client remains stationary and emulates an end-over-end tumbling motion common to many defunct orbital debris is. The objective of the mission is to demonstrate that Astroscale's technology for searching and finding targets to remove, properly verifying target identity and docking / releasing it, works as intended from launch.
Clearing space debris in near-earth orbit is half of Astroscal's approach to making space more sustainable for commercial and research activities. The other is the maintenance of orbiting geostationary satellites, which tend to be larger, more expensive and occupy a deeper orbital band of space. The company recently acquired assets from an Israeli company that focused on this endeavor to strengthen this parallel mission.