Speed Reads

crash and burn

Japan's trash-gobbling space robot just tumbled back to Earth

A Japanese spacecraft immolated according to plan while re-entering Earth's atmosphere Sunday. The space junk it was supposed to grab along the way? Not so much.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency sent the spacecraft to take supplies to the International Space Station late last year. After that routine delivery, the craft was then directed to launch a new experiment to clean up pieces of old spacecraft still orbiting the Earth. After dropping off the goods and being refilled with ISS trash, the spacecraft was to deploy a 2,300-foot-long tether to lasso space junk and drag it back to Earth. Both the craft and the space junk would, in theory, incinerate when they re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

But while the craft successfully delivered the goods and was refilled with trash, the cleanup experiment failed its first run after a glitch stopped the junk-gobbling tether from launching. Scientists kept trying to troubleshoot the problem, Japanese officials said, but couldn't get the tether to launch before the craft burned up in Earth's atmosphere — along with its ISS trash cargo.

Millions of pieces of space junk still orbit the Earth, NASA said, posing a danger to future missions and the ISS. It's unclear whether the Japanese researchers will try a similar method in the future.