July 17, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Astroscale space probe continues to inspect upper stage

TOKYO — An Astroscale spacecraft continues to inspect a Japanese upper stage left in low-Earth orbit, while proving it can do so safely.

On July 9, Astroscale announced that its Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft performed a “fly-around” maneuver around the H-2A upper stage it has been inspecting for the past several months. ADRAS-J used sensors to maintain a distance of just 50 meters from the stage.

However, a third of the way through the manoeuvre, ADRAS-J encountered what the company called an “unexpected attitude anomaly” that triggered an automatic abort. The spacecraft moved away from the stage as planned to avoid any risk of collision.

“The abort maneuver implemented during the flight operation demonstrated that ADRAS-J can maintain safety even while performing close-approach observations of uncooperative objects,” the company said in a statement, adding that engineers had found the cause of the anomaly and were preparing for another close approach to the scenario.

Aside from the anomaly, Astroscale says the ADRAS-J mission has gone well. The spacecraft Released in February and reached the vicinity of the H-2A stage In April, it came within 50 meters of the stage in May and has been carrying out inspections ever since, up to the flight manoeuvre around the stage which began on June 19.

Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Astroscale, showed off some of the images of the stage taken by ADRAS-J during a presentation on July 8 at the Spacetide conference. “It was just beautiful,” he said.

The images showed the platform remained in relatively pristine condition after 15 years in orbit. “These images have a lot of implications” for future debris removal efforts, he said. Among them was a very low rate of tumbling, which he called “almost static.”

Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Astroscale, speaks at the Spacetide conference on July 8. Credit: Space News/Jeff Foust

In addition to being a technical demonstration of approach and proximity operations (RPO), Okada said ADRAS-J was a policy demonstration, following guidelines for on-orbit servicing issued by the Japanese government regarding safety and transparency. That included obtaining proper permissions, emphasizing safe operations and sharing information about spacecraft operations.

ADRAS-J is the first phase of a program by the Japanese space agency JAXA called the Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration. In April, JAXA selected Astroscale for the second phase of the program, in which the company will send a spacecraft to the same upper stage for deorbit. Astroscale has not released detailed plans for that mission.

While Astroscale was operating ADRAS-J, the company also conducted an initial public offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange's Growth Market, a part of the exchange for companies with higher growth potential but also higher risk. Astroscale soared on its first day of trading on June 5closing up more than 60%. The company has since given back those gains and closed July 9 at 818 yen ($5.07) per share, below its IPO price of 850 yen.

“This shows that the global investment community sees the importance of space sustainability, but also the market opportunity for on-orbit servicing,” he said of the IPO.

Okada highlighted the company’s growth, noting that its order book has grown from 1.7 billion yen two years ago to 28.5 billion yen today. “By leveraging RPO technologies, we are finally capturing opportunities,” he said. “We are on the cusp of a booming on-orbit services market.”

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