An Astroscale spacecraft, which is intended to rendezvous with and inspect a spent upper stage in low Earth orbit before it is removed, was launched by a Rocket Lab Electron.

Launch Complex 1 of Rocket Lab in New Zealand saw the Electron take off on February 18 at 9:52 a.m. Eastern. Following the company’s first launch of four satellites for space situational awareness startup NorthStar Earth and Space on January 31, this was the second launch of the year.

On this launch, the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft was the only payload. Sixty-four minutes after takeoff, the 150 kg satellite was launched into an orbit covering approximately 600 km.

In a statement, Astroscale said that following deployment, it communicated with ADRAS-J. “We are thrilled to survey and characterize a real piece of debris using our cutting-edge rendezvous and proximity operations capabilities,” said Eijiro Atarashi, project manager for ADRAS-J at Astroscale, “this milestone signals the start of our mission.”

As the initial stage of the Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration, or CRD2, program of the Japanese space agency JAXA, Astroscale developed ADRAS-J. The aim of ADRAS-J is to reach and examine the upper stage of an H-2A rocket, which measures 11 meters in length and 4 meters in diameter, which was used to launch the GOSAT Earth observation satellite in 2009. A spacecraft will be launched to the upper stage in an attempt to deorbit it as part of the CRD2 program’s future second phase.

Mike Lindsay, chief technology officer of Astroscale, stated during a panel discussion at the Space Debris Conference hosted by the Saudi Space Agency on February 12 that “to the best of my knowledge, this will be the first mission that will approach and rendezvous with an actual piece of space debris.” “Our goal is to evaluate the space debris and determine whether it is safe for a follow-on mission to approach by observing its movement, tumbling, and overall condition.”

The mission has several milestones to demonstrate rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), according to a September briefing from Astroscale officials. These include the mission’s ability to approach and operate safely around the upper stage while gathering data that will help a future mission grapple and deorbit it.

At that briefing, Gene Fujii, the chief engineer at Astroscale, stated, “The mission’s most difficult component is demonstrating.” Astroscale, he said, anticipated that the ADRAS-J mission would run three to six months.

After a September Electron launch failure, ADRAS-J, which was supposed to launch in November, was completed last fall. Due to the delay, Astroscale stated at the time that it had no plans to switch launch providers. Meanwhile, Rocket Lab maintained that the mission could only be completed by a dedicated launch, such as Electron, which would have placed the spacecraft in an orbit close to the H-2A upper stage.

“We are planning an orbital rendezvous mission,” stated Sandy Tirtey, Rocket Lab’s director of global commercial launch services, in reference to the upcoming ADRAS-J launch, during a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium on February 7. “Using a rideshare is not a feasible option for this.”

Astroscale’s End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d) mission, which was launched in 2021, is the predecessor to ADRAS-J. Although the tests were complicated by the failure of four out of eight thrusters on the servicer spacecraft, ELSA-d demonstrated rendezvous and capture technologies using a client and servicer spacecraft.

Fujii stated at the September briefing, “We definitely learned a lot from ELSA-d.” Not only did this involve designing hardware and developing software, but it also included operations, which included both autonomous and ground controller-assigned tasks. It was quite difficult to put together a system that strikes a balance between autonomy and ground interactions for safety.

Following the servicer’s orbit-lowering maneuvers, Astroscale declared on January 24 that mission operations for the ELSA-d servicer and client spacecraft had been completed. The company stated that the client spacecraft, which is propulsion-free, is anticipated to deorbit in five years, and the servicer spacecraft will reenter in approximately three and a half years.

Topics #ADRAS-J #Astroscale #CRD2 #JAXA #Rendezvous and Proximity Operations #Rocket Lab Electron #Space Debris