Inside the mission to clean up Earth's dangerous space debris – and it's being spearheaded by a little robot named Elsa | The Sun

MEET ELSA, the robot whose mission it is to clean up Earth's space debris problem.

The so-called 'End of Life Services' vehicle is the brainchild of space company Astroscale, based out of Tokyo, Japan.

Governments are finally looking to tackle the amount of space debris that looms above Earth, after years of warnings from experts.

In a report from 2015, space scientist Joseph Pelton warned that because space systems have become so vital to everyday life – for communications, navigation and national security – access to Earth's orbit is critical to Earth's function.

"If we were suddenly denied access… We would suffer almost immediately – economically, militarily, and socially," he wrote.

"We need to take action."


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Since then, satellites being flung into orbit by the likes of SpaceX's Starlink and OneWeb has accelerated at an unprecedented rate.

More than 27,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” have accumulated in orbit since humans became a space-faring species, according to the US' Department of Defence’s global Space Surveillance Network.

There are a number of other causes of space debris beyond satellites, such as anti-satellite missile testing and accidental collisions between objects – the latter only expected to become more likely as the rate of space launches increases.

Astroscale was founded in 2013 as a simple answer to a complicated issue.

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The Japanese firm has engineered a space-tug robot to collect debris and dead satellites from orbit and push them into Earth's atmosphere to burn up and turn to dust.

The End of Life Services by Astroscale-Multiple (ELSA-M) vehicle has been in the works for several years.

The company had a successful first flight with a previous iteration of Elsa, known as the ELSA-D, in 2021.

However, ELSA-D was scrapped just months later after the company found "anomalous spacecraft conditions."

Earlier this week, the company announced that it had finally completed its Generation 2 Docking Plate for ELSA-M, which it says has an on-orbit lifespan of over 15 years.

The newer version of Elsa has a much more sophisticated de-orbiting process, according to the company, which makes it better at grabbing onto and pulling retired satellites out of orbit.

Elsa uses its thrusters to lower the client satellite's orbit, where the old bit of space tech can then disintegrate during its re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.

With the client satellite bound on a destructive course, Elsa then detaches and corrects its own orbit for rendezvous with its next target. 

In 2021, Astroscale's UK subsidiary signed a $3.2million (£2.5million) deal with mega-constellation manufacturer OneWeb, which has plans to launch more than 6,000 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) to support its global communications service. 

Esla is forecast to be released into orbit for a demonstration sometime next year.

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Its first mission will be to pluck an inoperable OneWeb satellite out of the sky before it becomes yet another chunk of metal trapped forever in Earth's orbit.

It will be the beginning of a long journey to clean up Earth's orbit and ensure those who want a slice of space – for communications, navigation, security and even tourism – can have it.

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