As the 2013 space thriller "Gravity" violently portrayed, orbital trash from decades of exploration in the heavens is a serious concern. An estimated 170 million pieces of debris smaller than a fingernail are currently in orbit, with 500,000 items of greater size and concern tracked at all times by various agencies. Damage from impact by these pieces of trash, traveling at upwards of 17,500 mph, can range from dents to catastrophic equipment failure.
Early next year, Japan's space agency JAXA will make an attempt to reign in some of that orbital trash with the launch of an innovative magnetic tether. Called the Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment (or KITE), the device will be deployed from a Japanese Kounotori 6 resupply vehicle currently docked at the International Space Station.
After delivering its payload of roughly 4.5 tons of supplies to the ISS, the K6 will undock and begin its descent back to Earth. Before it eventually burns up in the Earth's atmosphere, the KITE experiment will deploy a 2,296-foot electrodynamic tether made of aluminum strands and steel wire and attached to a 44-pound weight. As this tether system passes through the Earth's magnetic field, it's expected to generate an electromagnetic current that will effectively "knock" out of orbit any space junk that crosses its path.
Should KITE prove successful, it may be added to future missions as a way of sweeping up dangerous objects during an unmanned spacecraft or cargo re-supply vehicle's reentry into the atmosphere.
As NASA chief Charles Bolden told Fox News in 2015, innovations such as KITE are critical to the future of space exploration.
“We are among those that’s not putting a lot of money into debris removal,” he said. “We work a lot on what we call debris mitigation, making rules that say when you put something in space it has to have enough fuel to, when its mission is over, you can either put it into a parking orbit where it won’t come back for 100 years, or you can safely de-orbit it into the ocean. But that’s not the answer. The answer’s going to be debris removal, and we’ve got to figure out how to do that.”
You can see as JAXA animation of the KITE system concept in the video below.