Rocket Lab’s 33rd Electron mission. Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Launched AstroScale’s Orbital Debris Removal Demonstration Mission

Rocket Lab launched the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J), which will demonstrate Rendezvous and Proximity Operations with a large space junk

On Feb. 18 Rocket Lab successfully launched the “On Closer Inspection” mission from the LC-1B pad, in New Zealand. At 14:52 UTC an Electron rocket lifted off carrying the ADRAS-J satellite for AstroScale Japan and JAXA. Nearly two minutes and a half after liftoff the second stage separated from the booster, which was not recovered. About one hour later, the Kick Stage released the payload into a 600 km Sun-synchronous orbit. Today’s mission was the second Rocket Lab launch of the year, the 44th overall.

Electron Lifts off at Launch Complex 2. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston
Electron Lifts off at Launch Complex 2. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston

ADRAS-J is a spacecraft built by Astroscale Japan Inc. as part of JAXA’s Phase I of its Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration Project (CRD2), one of the world’s first missions to demonstrate the safe removal of large debris from orbit. Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) is designed to rendezvous with a Japanese upper stage rocket and gather information about the object. Phase II of the program will involve the capture and removal of space debris.

Due to the difficulties related to the rendezvous with a non-cooperative space object, the launch required highly responsive mission planning and extremely tight margins on orbital insertion.


The beginning of space debris cleanup

With the exponential increase in human activities in space, particularly with the rise of a new commercial space economy, the issue of space debris is destined to have a strong impact on the sector if not addressed promptly. It is estimated that there are currently more than 36,500 objects larger than 10 cm in orbit, for a total mass of more than 11,500 tonnes.

ADRAS-J being secured on top of Electron's Kick Stage. Credits: Rocket Lab
ADRAS-J being secured on top of Electron’s Kick Stage. Credits: Rocket Lab

Several institutional and private actors, as the swiss ClearSpace, are developing technologies and solutions to minimize the problem. With the CRD2 program, JAXA aims to actively remove large debris of Japanese origin in cooperation with private companies, making tangible progress in International discussion and increasing the attractiveness of Japanese companies in the orbital services market.

ADRAS-J mission

Before a space debris is removed it must be safely approached and characterized through Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO), ADRAS-J will be the world’s first attempt to do so. The 150 kg spacecraft will approach the upper stage of a H-2A rocket launched in 2009, using ground-based observation of the object to estimate its position.

Artistic impression of ADRAS-J approaching H-2H upper stage in orbit. Credits: Astroscale
Artistic impression of ADRAS-J approaching H-2A rocket upper stage in orbit. Credits: Astroscale

Once near the 11-meter-long body, ADRAS-J will use its own onboard rendezvous sensors to safely approach the target, demonstrating key autonomous RPO technologies. The satellite will orbit around the object to gather fundamental data and images, assessing the spin rate, spin axis, and general condition of the structure.

The information collected by the Japanese mission will be fundamental for the second phase of CRD2, as well as laying the groundwork for the development of future active debris removal (ADR) missions and on-orbit services by other international players.


About Electron

Electron is a 3D-printed small-lift rocket produced by Rocket Lab, capable of carrying up to 300 kg of payload to LEO. The first stage is powered by nine Rutherford RP-1/LOx engines, which generate 190 kN of thrust at liftoff. The second stage features a single vacuum-optimized Rutherford. Electron has optional third stages: the company’s Kick Stage or Photon.

9 Rutherford engines lifting Electron during "Coming To A Storm Near You" mission. Credits: Rocket Lab
9 Rutherford engines lifting Electron during “Coming To A Storm Near You” mission. Credits: Rocket Lab

The first stage can be recovered through a parachute-assisted descent and splashdown at sea. The company aims at launching a full pre-flown Electron booster, however, it is not currently clear whether and when this will be achieved;  the “We Love The Night Life” mission in July 2023, featured the first re-flown engine.


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Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Aerospace engineering student at University of Padua, passionate of space and aerospace sector.

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