A Japanese experiment designed to capture space junk and send it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere failed to pick up any debris.
The Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) attached an experimental tether to a space vehicle named HTV-6, which delivered five tons of food, water, clothing, science experiments, and other supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in December.
HTV-6 docked in the ISS’s Harmony module for 45 days while astronauts unloaded the supplies and replaced them with un-recyclable garbage that would be destroyed once the spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
Re-entry was scheduled for Sunday, February 5 at 10:06 AM EST.
JAXA’s plan called for the Kountori Integrated Tether Experiment (KITE) to deploy a 2,300-foot (700-meter) long electrodynamic tether that would grab space junk and pull it into Earth’s atmosphere, where it would disintegrate.
On January 27, HTV-6 left the ISS and began testing the new technology. For a week, the space vehicle orbited the Earth 12 miles (19 km) below the ISS and 23 miles (37 km) ahead of it in order to allow the tether to collect the space junk without posing a hazard to the space station.
Because one of the four bolts attached to the end of the tether did not release, the tether failed to deploy properly. JAXA engineers tried to correct the problem over several days before the spacecraft plunged into Earth’s atmosphere via a controlled de-orbit.
Using KITE, scientists and engineers sought to study the way a tether composed of strands of stainless steel wire and aluminum could de-orbit debris such as old satellites and rocket stages.
The tether was coated with a thin layer of lubricant to increase electric conductivity. Interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and the tether should, in theory, generate sufficient energy to alter an object’s orbit.
Electromagnetic tethers were used on two space shuttle missions during the 1990s, but neither reached their intended lengths, as one jammed, and the other broke.