A small satellite that will inspect the body of a discarded rocket in orbit is scheduled to lift off on Sunday or Monday on a mission to develop techniques for removing space debris. The satellite built by Japan-based Astroscale will launch atop a Rocket Lab Electron from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 3:52 a.m. NZDT (9:52 a.m. EST/1452 UTC).
The Active Debris Removal using the Astroscale-Japan or ADRAS-J satellite will approach and monitor the spent rocket from the upper stage of an H-2A rocket that launched in January 2009. It is part of the Commercial Debris Removal of the Japanese space agency (JAXA). demonstration program and is designed to lay the groundwork for a future rocket stage de-escalation mission, tentatively scheduled for 2026. A contract for this second phase of the program has not yet been awarded.
ADRAS-J will initially approach the 3-ton, 11-meter-long, 4-meter-diameter rocket using ground observation data, but will later switch to onboard sensors to complete the rendezvous. It is equipped with visual and infrared cameras and LiDAR sensors. Once close, it will assess the state of the rocket body and measure how far it might be falling. It will circle the upper stage and get closer, but it won’t try to grab onto the rocket.
Astroscale was founded in 2013 with the goal of providing in-orbit services and space debris removal. It is headquartered in Japan and has subsidiaries in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Israel.
If all goes as planned, the ADRAS-J spacecraft will deploy from the Electron’s Curie kick stage 64 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight. It will be Electron’s 44th launch to date and Rocket Lab’s second mission in 2024. Rocket Lab has dubbed the mission “On Closer Inspection.”