TOKYO — When China successfully towed a dead satellite into a “graveyard orbit” this year, it alarmed experts in Japan who have been trying to put their country at the forefront of the world’s expanding market in space-junk removal.
With commercial space activities taking off, the amount of junk orbiting the planet poses an increasing threat of collisions. Companies around the globe are working to develop the means to send this junk tumbling toward Earth so it will burn up in the extreme temperatures of reentry.
No rules govern who is responsible for cleanup — or space-debris mitigation, as it is called — but Japan intends to play a key role in their development. The nation has stepped up cooperation with the United States in response to China’s growing space capabilities.
“In space, Japan has always been a country of second gear. The first gear was always the United States, Soviet Union and, recently, China,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a space policy expert at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy. “This is a golden opportunity for Japan, but the time is very short.”
Low Earth orbit is full of litter. Decades of exploration have left thousands of pieces of now-useless equipment and satellites that circle the planet at 17,500 miles an hour. Some are the size of a marble, others as big as a school bus.
Dealing with space debris requires cooperation and trust among countries, especially the top polluters — the United States, China and Russia. But that has been in short supply given the icy state of relations between Washington and both Beijing and Moscow. In 2021, the Chinese accused the United States of violating international treaty obligations after their space station had to maneuver to avoid crashing into Starlink satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
Collaboration on this issue “only works if the countries are willing to put international interests ahead of their own paranoia about military concerns, and it’s not clear that China is, and the U.S. is definitely not,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The problem is there’s no international air traffic controller for space,” he added.
Though U.S. efforts on mitigation are still nascent, Japan is moving forward fast. Its Aerospace Exploration Agency has joined with Astroscale, a company headquartered in Tokyo, to complete the world’s first debris-removal mission and offer routine removal services by 2030.
Astroscale also is developing technologies to refuel and repair satellites in orbit, which would prevent their becoming obsolete as quickly and help extend their life spans. Those same technologies would allow Astroscale’s missions to refuel in space and so each time remove more debris.
“Space is big, but the orbits around the Earth are not. The highways that we are using are limited,” said Chris Blackerby, a former NASA official who is Astroscale’s chief operating officer. “So if we keep putting stuff up there and leaving it up there, there is going to be an accident. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. We have to reduce that risk.”
By working with Astroscale, the Japanese government is trying to create standards for companies and countries to follow. Earlier this year, the government began the process of creating rules and regulations for entities involved in space-debris-removal research and missions. The goal is to make transparency and notification the norm, which experts say is important to avoid stoking suspicion between competitors and possible conflict.
“Setting a precedent is a great way to hold other countries accountable,” Suzuki said. “It will — not legally, but morally — bind other countries. And if China, for example, is trying to find different ways to approach this, then China might need to explain why China is doing something different from what Japan did.”
Companies in North America, Europe and Australia are in pursuit. In the United States, where a recent FCC decision cut the rule for “de-orbiting” satellites post-mission from 25 years to five, both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are engaged. Obruta Space Solutions in Canada is contracted with that country’s space agency to develop debris-removal technology. The Swiss start-up ClearSpace is working with the European Space Agency to do the same.
Chinese companies are also focusing on the issue. Origin Space, a space-mining start-up based in Shenzhen, last year launched a prototype of a robot that can snag space debris with a large net.
The greatest need for cleanup soon could be China’s. The country, which put up its first satellite only in 1970, aims to become a global space power by 2045. And with more than 500 satellites in orbit as of April, more rocket launches than any other country for several years, construction of its own space station and a burgeoning commercial space industry, it is poised to leave more debris behind than others.
In 2007, Beijing launched a ballistic missile at one of its defunct weather satellites. The impact created the largest cloud of space debris ever, and many of the more than 3,000 remnants will stay in orbit for decades.
Yet the country quietly achieved a milestone in debris mitigation this January when its Shijian 21 satellite reached that defunct satellite, docked with it and then towed it into what is known as a disposal orbit, far away from regular operational orbits. China notified the U.N. Office for space Affairs in advance of its action, which Suzuki called a good sign that Beijing recognizes the importance of transparency in these efforts.
On space-debris removal, China has supported and followed guidelines from the U.N. office and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. In May 2021, for example, the government published new management standards for small satellites that require operators to submit plans for de-orbiting them, plus detailed safety measures in the case of malfunctions.
“China’s ambition is to be treated with respect and to be seen as an equal to the United States,” McDowell said. “There are areas like active debris removal where the U.S. has really dropped the ball, and there’s an opening for China to take the leadership.”
Kuo reported from Taiwan. Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, and Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.