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‘World-first’ project for capturing defunct satellites ramps up

Prototype craft for European Space Agency mission to build on lessons from previous demonstrator mission

A “world-first” European project for removing defunct satellites from orbit is set to begin construction of a new prototype spacecraft, building on lessons from a previous demonstrator mission.

The Japan-headquartered firm Astroscale will begin manufacturing its ELSA-M spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2024, together with satellite operator OneWeb, the European Space Agency announced on 27 May.

As more governmental and private actors pursue satellite programmes, a growing quantity of debris orbiting the Earth is an increasing problem for both existing infrastructure and future launches.

Astroscale’s ELSA-d craft, launched in 2021, had previously demonstrated technologies including a magnetic capturing system and autonomous thruster rendezvous manoeuvring.

However, the firm said on 4 May that it had not been able to actually recapture debris following thruster failures and would “analyse the next phase of the mission, including the potential for a safe and viable magnetic recapture”.

ELSA-M is set to be the first craft to capture more than one defunct satellite in a single run. It would be Astroscale’s prototype for future commercial services if successful.

Astroscale managing director John Auburn said: “The ELSA-M in-orbit demonstration, planned for late 2024, will build on lessons learned from the ELSA-d mission and demonstrate our innovative rendezvous, capture and de-orbit capabilities with a full-size constellation client.”