The problem of space debris is one that is mostly disconnected from the large majority of people living in the planet. But for countries which have very active space programs like Japan, the problem becomes a very real one, especially because in truth, low earth orbit is starting to get cluttered with metal debris. With this, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is teaming up with Nitto Seimo, a company that manufactures fishing equipment, to build a “magnetic net” that will be able to “fish out” floating space debris.
The first test of this “clean up” equipment is scheduled for late February. A Japanese rocket will be launched to deploy a specially developed satellite made by researchers at Kagawa University. Once the special satellite is in orbit, it will unreel a wire net around 300 meters long that will then generate a magnetic field strong enough to (theoretically) attract some of the debris in orbit, most of which is metal. “We started work on this project about five years ago and we are all excited to see the outcome of this first test,” Koji Ozaki, the engineer who heads the development team.
The net is 30cm wide when unspooled and is made of three strong and very flexible lengths of metal fiber, according to Ozaki. Taking advantage of Nitto Seimo’s experience in the fishing industry, a specialized magnetic net measuring 1 kilometer in length has already been fabricated at the company’s factory. “Fishing nets need to be extremely strong because they need to be able to hold a large number of fish, but our tether does not have to be that strong,” Ozaki added. “It is more important that it is flexible.”
As of the moment, space experts say that there is an estimated 100 million bits of man-made junk in low earth orbit. Of that total, some 22,000 pieces are believed to be 10 cm or larger, making them dangerous for space operations. These bits are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and near impossible to accurately monitor. A single metal bolt could become the cause of a catastrophe if it somehow collides with a satellite or the International Space Station.