Rocket Lab to blast off on world-first mission to tackle space junk

An out-of-this-world first is set to lift off from New Zealand to help tackle the growing problem of space junk. 

Japanese company Astroscale has contracted New Zealand and American space company Rocket Lab to send its new satellite to space next week. 

The satellite, ADRAS-J, is due to lift off on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the Mahia Launch Complex 1 and when deployed, aims to get close to an old rocket body that is hurtling around Earth. 

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said it's a tricky launch. 

"We have to insert it at exactly the right place, not just the right altitude and the right orbit -  but also at the right time because everything is travelling at 27,000 kilometres an hour around Earth," Beck said.  

Rocket Lab's part in the mission will only last an hour from lift-off to deploying the Japanese spacecraft.  

Once there, the ADRAS-J will try to stay close to the old rocket and send back images and other data to help understand the debris environment. 

It's an operation that could take months. 

It was commissioned by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency - yet to contract out phase two, which could involve the actual capture and removal of space debris. 

The problem is huge.  

NASA estimates there are 20,000 old booster rockets and satellites the size of cars hurtling around Earth. It also estimates there are 500,000 marble-sized objects and 100,000,000 objects one millimetre or smaller in size.

Beck told Newshub that all of them can cause damage. 

"There are two risks. One you have infrastructure in orbit - like your SKY TV and all the rest of it, and those services can be disrupted by junk," he explained. 

"Then you have much more serious situations where you have astronauts in orbit, the International Space Station is in Low Earth Orbit."

There is no global agreement on space junk, but Beck is optimistic something will be done before access to space is closed off by an orbiting rubbish dump. 

"I think there is enough spotlight on it and enough kind of initiative. I certainly hope that will never become the case."  

Once the ADRAS-J completes its mission of surveying the derelict rocket, it's unclear whether it will be de-orbited or end up as space junk. 

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket carrying the satellite is scheduled to lift at 3am February 19.