Private Spacecraft Snaps First Rendezvous Photo of Space Debris

Image of a satellite in space against a dark background, captured by astroscale, showing detailed parts reflecting light.

Cue the anti-space litter campaigns. A satellite captured a historic photo of space debris during a new mission.

“Pics or it didn’t happen,” Astroscale, which operates the photo-snapping satellite, says in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “Behold, the world’s first image of space debris captured through rendezvous and proximity operations during our ADRAS-J mission. #ShowtheWayADRASJ”

The Japanese-operated ADRAS-J satellite launched into orbit atop a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle in February and is meant to “rendezvous with, and study, a big hunk of space junk,” according to Space.

But, the outlet notes it’s not the first close-up of space debris. The world saw an image of a spent upper stage of a Delta II rocket, which was captured after boarding the Delta II. Instead, the ADRAS-J, which stands for Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan, had to get close to its space trash subject. Per Astroscale, this is the first time space debris has been captured through rendezvous and proximity missions. The satellite maneuvered within a few hundred feet to take the image of the spent rocket body, Space reports.

“In the next phase of the mission, ADRAS-J will attempt to capture additional images of the upper stage through various controlled close approach operations,” Astroscale explains. “The images and data collected are expected to be crucial in better understanding the debris and providing critical information for future removal efforts.”

Space debris is an important issue as the world continues exploring the cosmos. Sending something into space happens at incredible speed, and if that were to hit space debris, the damage could be “substantial if not catastrophic,” as NASA describes. And the ADRAS-J marks progress in finding a solution to address the issue.

“ADRAS-J is a groundbreaking mission as the world’s first attempt to safely approach, characterize and survey the state of an existing piece of large debris through [rendezvous and proximity operations]. ADRAS-J is designed to rendezvous with a Japanese upper stage rocket body, demonstrate proximity operations including orbiting around the upper stage, and gather images to assess the rocket body’s movement and condition of the structure,” Astroscale says. “The mission will demonstrate some of the most challenging RPO technologies necessary for on-orbit services.”

Image credits: Astroscale