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JAXA to try out new technique designed to remove debris from space

The Kounotori 6 unmanned cargo spacecraft.

A groundbreaking experiment designed to simulate the removal of debris from space is scheduled to begin in the evening on Jan. 28.

    The experiment, which will be carried out by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) over a seven-day period, aims to make use of the earth's magnetic field and an electrified tether to slow space debris and make it fall to the earth's atmosphere before safely burning away.

    Space debris from old satellites and defunct rocket hulks is a problem for those involved in space exploration. With an estimated 520,000 pieces of waste -- ranging from one centimeter to 10 centimeters or above in size -- there is a real danger of unwanted collisions between pieces of space debris and the International Space Station (ISS) or satellites.

    In the experiment, the unmanned cargo spacecraft "Kounotori 6," which was used to resupply the ISS with items such as food and batteries as well as experimental equipment, will represent a piece of space junk. JAXA will attach a metallic rope, known as a "tether," to the spacecraft. By electrifying the extended tether, it is thought that this will cause a reaction with the Earth's magnetic field, which in turn, should create a brake-like force. Consequently, the altitude of the space debris is expected to drop -- due to the Earth's gravitational pull. Once this has occurred, the debris should burn away, as a result of the resulting friction with the air in the Earth's atmosphere.

    The "Kounotori 6" separated from the ISS in the early hours of Jan. 28, and JAXA is on the verge of extending the tether -- which is about 700 meters long -- at 10 p.m. on the same day. First of all, it will be seen whether or not the tether will extend properly, and also whether it can carry an electric current. If successful, JAXA will develop a satellite that can attach a tether to space debris further to remove such waste, aiming to put it into actual use around 2025.

    "Kounotori 6" was launched into space in December 2016. After this tether related experiment, it is expected to fall back down to the earth's atmosphere and burn up safely.

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