Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off with space debris removal mission

An Electron rocket lifts off from Rocket Lab’s launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula carrying the ADRAS-J satellite for Astroscale. Image: Rocket Lab.

A small satellite that will inspect a discarded rocket body in orbit lifted off Sunday/Monday on a mission to develop techniques for removing space debris. The satellite built by Japan-based Astroscale launched atop a Rocket Lab Electron from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand at 3:52 a.m. NZDT (9:52 a.m. EST / 1452 UTC).

The Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan satellite or ADRAS-J will approach and monitor the spent upper-stage rocket of an H-2A rocket that launched in January 2009. It is part of the Japanese space agency’s (JAXA) Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration program and is designed to lay the ground work for a future mission to deobit the rocket stage, tentatively scheduled for 2026. A contract has yet to be awarded for this second phase of the program.

ADRAS-J was deployed 64 minutes into flight after two firings of the Electron’s Curie kick stage to precisely place the spacecraft on course for its rendezvous in space.

“100% mission success,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote in a social media post. “Big day for the GNC [Guidance Navigation and Control] team with perfect argument of perigee targeting.”

The mission, nick named “On Closer Inspection”, was the 44th Electron launch to date and Rocket Lab’s second mission of 2024.

The ADRAS-J spacecraft will initially close in on the derelict rocket body using ground-based observation data but will then switch to on-board sensors to complete the rendezvous. It is equipped with visual and infrared cameras and LiDAR sensors. Once in close proximity, it will assess the rocket body’s condition and gauge the extent to which it might be tumbling. It will circle the upper-stage and make a close approach, but will not attempt to latch on to the rocket.

The H-2A upper stage is currently in a 622 x 557 km orbit, inclined at 98.2 degrees to the equator, has a mass of three tonnes, is 11 meters long and a diameter of four meters.

The ADRAS-J satellite approaches the discarded H-2A rocket stage in this artist’s impression. Image: Astroscale.

“Taking images in space might sound easy, but doing it with an unprepared object that does not provide any location data on its own and it’s moving at approximately 7.5 kilometers per second is extremely hard,” said Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Astroscale. “In fact, this kind of operation is one of the most challenging capabilities necessary for on orbit services.”

Astroscale was founded in 2013 with the goal of offering on-orbit servicing and space debris removal services. It is headquarted in Japan and has subsidiaries in the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and Israel.