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We know about pollution on Earth and fight it to prevent global warming. However, the space around our planet is also polluted as well—there are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris that are at least 1 cm (0.394 inches) circulating only 2,000 km (1242.74 miles) above our planet. The most notable piece of space junk was the space station Mir, which fell to Earth in 2001 over the South Pacific Ocean.

Cleaning up space junk is no easy task—the sheer amount of space junk and the fact that all of it will eventually fall back towards the Earth should be of concern to companies that are investing in space travel. According to a 2013 Space.com article, more space debris would be created if it was left up there. “In the long term, everything will eventually break up due to collisions,” said Donald Kessler, former head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. “Even if you don’t add anything else to the environment, the collision frequency due to random collisions will create more debris than will re-enter naturally.” According to the infographic below, it could threaten the very future of space flight.

spacejunkinfographic

While several solutions to cleaning up space debris are outlined above, one solution got inspiration from the 1982 video game Pac-Man. The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) Space Engineering Center (eSpace), is working on a solution where a satellite would go around catching space debris in giant nets. This will make it look like the satellite is eating space debris, much like Pac-Man eats pellets and ghosts. The project, called CleanSpace One, was originally designed to capture and destroy the SwissCube, another project created by the EPFL. Swiss Space Systems, a company that focuses on in-orbit delivery of small satellites, invested $16 million in CleanSpace One, and is scheduled to be in orbit in 2018.

However, Jekan Thanga, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Exploration (SESE), said that CleanSpace One’s idea was somewhat impractical. “I am skeptical of a net idea, because the particle size distribution can vary substantially. Larger particles pose a much higher risk of taking out the clean-up satellite completely,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Why the sudden interest in cleaning up space debris? Most government-funded space agencies, such as NASA, have not done anything because of a lack of funding and support, despite discussion to clean up space junk for at least two decades. “Space is no longer politically advantageous,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research. “I have yet to see a credible plan to reduce space debris, and find it hard to believe that any significant effort will be put in place until it starts threatening life,” he said.

There are also more technical issues to consider. Each piece of debris is traveling at different speeds, in different directions, at different altitudes, which could further complicate the clean-up solution. “The satellite could easily be trying to grab one thing and then be hit at speed by something else from another direction, which would change it from a junk solution to junk,” said Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group, a tech consulting firm.

phoenixprogram

Instead of cleaning up space junk, companies can also look into re-purposing older satellites. One solution proposed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would involve launching a new satellite to interconnect still-functioning pieces of defunct satellites, reducing the amount of space junk and creating a new communications system in the process. The project, called the Phoenix program, has been in development since 2011. It could be the first step to lowering the cost of space-based missions, because it plans to use already-existing technology.

Cleaning up space hasn’t been a huge priority in recent years, but these solutions for cleaning up space debris could make going back into space easier and more affordable for governments who have neglected their space programs and explore the final frontier.

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