April 14, 2024

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Rocket Lab Electron launches on space debris removal mission – Spaceflight Now

Rocket Lab Electron launches on space debris removal mission – Spaceflight Now

An Electron rocket lifts off from the Rocket Lab launch site on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula carrying the ADRAS-J satellite for Astroscale. Photo: Rocket Lab.

A small satellite that will examine an abandoned rocket object was launched into orbit on Sunday/Monday on a mission to develop space debris removal techniques. The satellite built by Japan-based Astroscale was launched atop Rocket Lab Electron from New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula at 3:52 a.m. New Zealand time (9:52 a.m. EDT/1452 UTC).

An active debris removal operation by the Astroscale-Japan satellite, or ADRAS-J, will approach and monitor the spent upper stage of an H-2A rocket launched in January 2009. It is part of a commercial debris removal operation undertaken by the Japanese Aerospace Agency (JAXA). The demonstration program is designed to lay the groundwork for a future mission to remove the rocket stage, tentatively scheduled for 2026. A contract for this second phase of the program has not yet been awarded.

ADRAS-J deployed 64 minutes into the flight following two launches of Electron's Curie kick stage to precisely place the spacecraft on course for a rendezvous in space.

“Mission 100% successful,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote in a social media post. “Great day for the General National Congress [Guidance Navigation and Control] A team with the perfect excuse to target rock bottom.

The mission, dubbed “On Closer Inspection,” was the 44th Electron launch to date and Rocket Lab's second mission of 2024.

The ADRAS-J spacecraft will initially approach the abandoned rocket body using ground-based observation data, but will then turn to onboard sensors to complete the rendezvous. It is equipped with vision and infrared cameras and LiDAR sensors. Once close, it will assess the condition of the missile body and measure how likely it is to fall. It will orbit the upper stage and get closer, but it will not attempt to cling to the rocket.

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The H-2A upper stage is currently located in an orbit of 622 x 557 kilometers, inclined at an angle of 98.2 degrees to the equator, has a mass of three tons, and is 11 meters long and four meters in diameter.

The ADRAS-J satellite approaches the discarded H-2A rocket stage in this artist's impression. Image: star scale.

“Taking images in space may seem easy, but doing so with an ill-equipped object that provides no location data on its own and is moving at approximately 7.5 kilometers per second is extremely difficult,” said Nobuo Okada, founder and CEO of Astroscale. “In fact, this type of operation is one of the most challenging capabilities needed for orbital services.”

Astroscale was founded in 2013 with the goal of providing on-orbit servicing and space debris removal. It is headquartered in Japan with branches in the United Kingdom, United States, France and Israel.