Space Age Fish Tale Gets Lost in Translation

TOKYO—"'Fishing net' to collect space debris," blared a headline in Wednesday's edition of London's The Telegraph newspaper. The article described how the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and a Japanese fishing net maker had teamed up to make "a giant net several kilometers in size" that would sweep up abandoned satellites and drag them into the atmosphere to burn up. The Telegraph quoted Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist, as praising the plan but soberly urging care, "because we wouldn't want a real satellite getting caught up in the net." This satellite fishing system could be completed "within 2 years," the paper claimed.

That news also came as news to JAXA. "It's a bit of a bother. We're getting a lot of inquiries from overseas asking if it's true," says JAXA spokesperson Eisuke Aizawa. It's not.

The saga started on 25 January when the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading nationwide dailies, ran a brief local-company-makes-good story about Nitto Seimo, which makes knotless commercial fishing nets in the small city of Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture. The article described how the 100-year-old Nitto Seimo still has a knack for innovation, working on a tether that might be used to collect space debris.

"Then the story quickly walked off on its own," says Aizawa. It appeared in the Asahi's English edition, but key details got mangled in translation. Then news blogs and media Web sites around the world picked it up and added their own embellishments.

JAXA, like space agencies worldwide, is concerned about space debris and has a team pondering creative ways to tackle the problem. One scheme calls for a robotic spacecraft to attach what's called an electrodynamic tether—essentially a long conducting wire—to zombie satellites. A conductive wire moving through Earth's magnetic field generates a voltage which drives an electric current along the wire, and that electrical power is then dissipated as heat. The heat loss drains kinetic energy from the wire—and hence the attached satellite--producing electrodynamic drag that will slow the spacecraft until it falls low enough into the atmosphere to burn up. The longer the tether, the greater the electrodynamic drag.

The JAXA group asked Nitto Seimo to investigate the feasibility of fabricating a netlike tether that could be rolled up for deployment from a spacecraft. Nitto Seimo has made only a few test samples. "JAXA has no plans to implement this technology," Aizawa says.

And, to reassure Aderin-Pocock, even if the scheme was put into action, it wouldn't sweep through space but would capture wayward satellites one by one.