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Monday, January 20, 2014

Japan Wants To Be Your Space Garbagemen

Space garbagemen? Bet you weren't ready for that!

JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) says it has come up with a way to collect all of the litter - space junk - orbiting the Earth, and is readying a satellite to prove that the big, blue marble Earth can be a green space partner to the rest of the universe.

In case you didn't know, there are more than 20,000 bits of space junk revolving around the planet Earth in various levels of orbit.

This space junk consists of old satellites no longer working, rocket stages, cast of equipment and other detritus from all of man's ascension into space beginning with the Soviet Union's stellar Sputnik I in 1957... so that's a lot of space junk left out in orbit in the last 56+ years.

Now... the reason that JAXA is interested in playing intergalactic garbage man is that all of this debris in space is actually starting to interfere with current and future space missions.

The orbiting junk is actually contained in a band up in space that is between 800-1,400 kilometers (500-900 miles) above the Earth's surface - and according to NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the average impact speed of a piece of orbital debris running into another object is 22,370 miles per hour.

Stick out your can - here come the garbage man.
The above line was sung by Scatman Crothers on the television show Chico And The Man, and for some reason, 40 years later it still resonates in my brain.

Now... still with television, JAXA will not be the first concept of garbagemen in space... for me, that distinction goes to the quirky eight-episode only Quark, about an interstellar garbage scow.

I watched a lot of television growing up, as did members of Japan's space community.

Using what Japanese space scientists are calling an electrodynamic tether made from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum, JAXA says that one end of the strip will be attached to one piece of the space debris, and then as the electricity generated by the tether as it swings through the Earth's magnetic field, this zapping of the junk will slow the orbiting speed of the debris and cause it to fall lower into an orbit.

Basically, as the space garbage falls lower in orbit, it will eventually fall out of orbit and then burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

At least, that's the plan. I'm guessing that in order to ensure that the space garbage - the one solitary piece of debris - actually burns up in the atmosphere, JAXA will endeavor to choose a relatively small piece of space junk to zap with its tether.

Now... don't worry. There's no need to go and hide down your rabbit hole. NASA says that a piece of debris actually falls from space about once every day, either burning up in the atmosphere or landing in the water.

Apparently the odds are always very good that space junk - should it not completely burn up in re-entry - will land in water, since the Earth is 70% covered by the stuff.

Uh... so there's only a 30% chance every day of having a tiny chunk of space junk hitting a land mass... and then less of a chance of it actually hitting a city... or a person... hmmm... the ISS didn't flush out its space poop did it?

(Even if it did, that would surely burn up in re-entry.. heck... we could be breathing in space poo particles right now!)
In 2008 an Australian farmer found space junk on his property. It apparently freaked out his pet marsupial, Jake The Peg, so much, that he had to "tie me kangaroo down, sport." 

Space Scow 54 - Where Are You?
"The experiment is specifically designed to contribute to developing a space debris cleaning method," notes Kagawa University associate professor Nohmi Masahiro (surname first), who is working with JAXA on the project, told AFP.

Now... unlike say the long wait between Star Wars movies, JAXA says the satellite containing the electrodynamic tether will be launched on February 28, 2014.

"We have two main objectives in the trial next month," he said. "First, to extend a 300-meter (1,000-foot) tether in orbit and secondly to observe the transfer of electricity."

Awwww. That means that at least on this space trip there won't be any burning of space trash.

You know... here in Toronto it's against the law to burn your own trash.

Oh well... I am sure that JAXA doesn't care about Toronto's puritanical green thinking... but I wonder... is JAXA so altruistic that it's willing to clean up everyone else's mess for free? Or does it have a deeper problem, like some sort of obsessive compulsive cleaning disorder?

Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's blog is brought to you by the Steve Miller Band, Star Wars, Chico And The Man, Car 54 Where Are You?, Alice in Wonderland, Rolf Harris, and Quark. I think that's enough name dropping for one blog.
PPS: Space junk image at the top is courtesy of NASA.


  1. The rockets, satellites and probes we have sent into orbit over the decades have created a fast-moving debris field that contains hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk.No one country or agency has taken ownership over the growing problem, but it seems Japan has decided to step up and take control.Space debris getting dust from solid rocket motors, surface degradation products such as paint flakes & impacts of these particles cause erosive damage similar to sandblasting.Keeping these things in mind Japan to start thinking seriously about a militarized program focusing on space.For more details :

    1. Hey Michael... I wouldn't say Japan would NEVER create a militarized space program, but I would bet there are a few other countries working in secret on one, too. Human nature, unfortunately.
      I watched Apollo 13 (again x 3) last week... and I really want to see a few more moon landings... or maybe yet another probe at Venus. Something. While I see the practicality of all the shuttle-type trips, I think something really spectacular needs to be done to blast people out of their Blackberry's et al and to think about space again.