Astroscale announces launch window for ELSA-d demo

A company aiming to remove defunct satellites from orbit is set to launch a demonstration mission from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, in March 2021.

Astroscale Holdings will launch its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) on a Soyuz rocket before engaging in a series of tests to validate its technology.

If the tests are successful, satellite operators will be able to safely dispose of their hardware once missions are complete and, in the words of Seita Iizuka, ELSA-d project manager, establish Astroscale as a global leader in the on-orbit servicing market.

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Tokyo-headquartered Astroscale said the ELSA-d mission will demonstrate several dynamically complex capture activities necessary to remove defunct objects from orbit using a servicer (~175kg) and a client (~17kg), launched together. The servicer, equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic capture mechanism, will repeatedly release and dock with the client, which has been prepared with a ferromagnetic docking plate. Astroscale intends to prove the capabilities required for debris removal, including client search, inspection and rendezvous, and both non-tumbling and tumbling docking.

According to John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale’s UK office, ELSA-d will demonstrate the first semi-autonomous capture of a non-responsive, tumbling client, as well as the first identification of a client located outside the servicer’s sensor field of view.

“Our priority is safety,” he said. “We can abort any manoeuvre and move backwards to a safe position, if required.

Auburn added that Astroscale is focussed on developing the Active Debris Removal (ADR) capability for large constellations, primarily for broadband communications in Low Earth Orbit. “In parallel we are building a business case to extend the life of telecommunication satellites in Geostationary orbit,” he said.

Rigorous testing ahead of the ELSA-d mission in March 2021 (c) Astroscale, Tokyo, Japan 2020

To date, Astroscale has been supporting OneWeb and Altius to design a docking plate that is compatible with the company’s debris removal capability. Auburn explained that this docking plate is designed for fitment to spacecraft with minimum supporting modification.

“Features such as mass and magnetic characteristics are carefully designed to integrate unobtrusively with the wider satellite design,” he said. “OneWeb is planning to launch new satellites with the Altius grappling fixture capability in the near future.”

Astroscale will operate ELSA-d out of the UK using the In-Orbit Servicing Control Centre National Facility (IOCC) developed by a team led by Astroscale. The IOCC, located at the Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell, Oxfordshire, was developed specifically for satellite servicing missions and ELSA-d will be the first mission to use the facility.

Astroscale’s future missions include Phase I of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration (CRD2) project, scheduled to launch in early 2023, as well as the company’s first satellite life-extension platform in geostationary orbit.