An illustration of space debris orbiting the Earth. Source: JAXA

106-Year-Old Fishing Net Maker May Have Space Junk Solution

By Chris CooperChris Cooper and Kiyotaka Matsuda

Space isn’t so empty these days. Earth’s orbit is cluttered with more than half a million bits of debris, mostly rocket and satellite remnants that can wreck anything in their flight path.

A 106-year-old Japanese fishing net maker may have a solution. Nitto Seimo Co. is working with Japan’s space agency to develop a mesh material to tether and drag bus-size pieces of space junk into the atmosphere for incineration. Scientists will get their first indication of whether the metallic line will work when it’s tested in orbit next month, said project chief Koichi Inoue, an associate principal researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

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The experiment is part of an international cleanup effort planning to safeguard astronauts and about $900 billion worth of space stations, satellites and other infrastructure relied on for telecommunications, weather forecasting, Earth-monitoring and navigation. With debris traveling at up to 17,500 miles an hour, the impact of even a marble-size projectile can cause catastrophic damage as portrayed in the Academy Award-winning movie Gravity.

Objects in Earth’s Orbit

Total Objects*

18000

Collision between the Iridium

and Russian Cosmos satellites

16000

14000

Russian satellite hit by debris

from Chinese anti-satellite test

12000

10000

8000

6000

4000

2000

0

1957

1961

1965

1969

1973

1977

1981

1985

1989

1993

1997

2001

2005

2009

2013

2017

*Catalogued objects of 2 inches or more in diameter

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Total Objects*

18000

Collision between the Iridium and Russian Cosmos satellites

16000

14000

Russian satellite

hit by debris

from Chinese

anti-satellite test

12000

10000

8000

6000

4000

2000

0

1957

2017

*Catalogued objects of 2 inches or more in diameter

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Total Objects*

18000

Collision between the Iridium

and Russian Cosmos satellites

16000

14000

Russian satellite hit by debris from Chinese anti-satellite test

12000

10000

8000

6000

4000

2000

0

1965

1989

1957

1993

1981

1985

1997

2001

1961

1969

1973

1977

2005

2009

2013

2017

*Catalogued objects of 2 inches or more in diameter

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Total Objects*

18000

Collision between the Iridium

and Russian Cosmos satellites

16000

14000

Russian satellite hit by debris from Chinese anti-satellite test

12000

10000

8000

6000

4000

2000

0

’65

2017

’89

’93

’81

’85

’97

’01

’61

’69

’73

’77

’05

’09

’13

1957

*Catalogued objects of 2 inches or more in diameter

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

“We need to take action on this massive amount of debris,” Inoue said at the JAXA campus in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo. “People haven’t been injured by the debris yet, but satellites have. We have to act.”

Harpooning Junk

Spacefaring nations around the world are pursuing different strategies for harpooning, sweeping, lassoing and dragging debris and redundant gear of varying sizes into the atmosphere for burning or into a so-called graveyard orbit, where they can’t collide with operational equipment. NASA’s Hubble Telescope has a 1-centimeter hole in one of its dish antennas, and solar panels have been cracked and chipped by tiny debris, according to its website.

“There’s a significant value to the industry of mitigating that risk,” said Ben Greene, chief executive officer of Sydney-based Electro Optic Systems Holdings Ltd., which is developing land-based laser technology to track and alter the course of space debris smaller than a flat-screen TV. The space industry has spent A$300 million ($230 million) during the past five years trying to quantify the risk of accidents caused by junk, he said.

The global launch industry is booming, with revenue of $5.4 billion last year, according to the Satellite Industry Association. That’s a 23 percent increase since 2010. A total of 202 military, commercial and scientific satellites were launched last year.

The program in Japan “is terribly valuable,” Greene said. “It’s technically sound. There’s no reason not to do it, but it only works for really huge pieces of junk.”

Knotless Net

Nitto Seimo started making minnow nets in 1910 and invented the knotless net machine in 1925. Japan’s largest maker of fishing nets was asked by the space agency about a decade ago to develop a metal mesh line, said Katsuya Suzuki, a subsection chief who previously oversaw the project for the Tokyo-based company. JAXA wanted mesh, instead of a single cable, because it would be harder to break.

Making knotless nets at Nitto Seimo’s Fukuyama factory. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

“It was extremely difficult,” said Suzuki, whose employer also makes nets for trawling, fish farming and keeping animals out of agricultural areas. “At first, we could only make 20 or 30 centimeters. It took us until about 2010 until we could finally make several hundred meters.”

The aluminum-containing line is designed to harness Earth’s electromagnetic forces to propel tethered objects out of orbit and into the atmosphere for destruction. Nitto Seimo may build a line as long as 10 kilometers if next month’s experiment using a 700-meter piece is successful, Suzuki said.

The company spent 20 million-30 million yen ($195,000-$295,000) building a machine to make the conductive material, and it wants a working prototype by 2025.

Station Moved

JAXA wants to run a second test of its tethering approach as early as 2020, Inoue said, adding that the costs of mitigating damage from orbital debris are hastening the organization’s efforts.

“The International Space Station has to be moved to avoid it,” he said. “That costs money and time, which cuts back on working time.”

Satellite collisions and testing of anti-satellite weapons have added thousands of debris fragments in the atmosphere since 2007, according to NASA.

An illustration of a tether extending from the Kounotori transfer vehicle, foreground, shows JAXA’s debris-catching technology. Source: JAXA

The problem is getting more pressing as space becomes more popular. At least 19 countries have, are developing or are planning to host spaceports for orbital or suborbital launches, the Colorado-based nonprofit Space Foundation said in its 2016 Space Report.

“Debris hitting debris creates more debris, so you have this cascade effect and end up with so much space debris that it becomes a real danger to operational satellites and new launches,” said Steve Gower, general manager of the Space Environment Research Centre in Canberra, Australia, that also gets funding from Japan and the U.S. “Every time we launch a satellite, we need to plan a path to avoid space junk.”

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