Our attempts to reach out into space and learn as much as we can about our Universe and also learn much more about the workings of our beautiful Blue Planet has come at a cost and the space agencies around the world have not ignored the growing space “graveyard” encompassing the Earth. From thousands upon thousands of tiny pieces of junk created by both defunct and functioning satellites colliding with one another  to micrometeoroids surrounding the Earth, it is making it obviously more and more dangerous and difficult to expect new satellites and space craft to survive. Earth orbit is ever more dangerous for current satellites, including the human-carrying International Space Station.

 

trackable orbital debris around the earth wiki

Trackable orbital debris around the Earth. This is just the stuff that is big enough to show up on radar. (Image Credit: NASA)

 

According to NASA as of September 2013 there is over 500 000 particles of TRACKABLE space debris, the size of a marble or larger, whirling around the Earth, with speeds of up to 17 000 mph (27 200 km/h)! Roughly 20 000 of these hazardous particles are larger than a softball so you could imagine the damage a softball alone could do traveling at such a speed! Needless to say not many would want to step up to the plate and attempt to hit that ball! What is worse is that these numbers, as I have stated are the only ones that can be tracked, there are literally millions of particles of space debris so small it is impossible to track them. Now you may think that what could a particle that small do to harm even a fly, but in the past space shuttles windows have had to actually be replaced after the damage caused by a tiny fleck of paint! But don’t worry; various agencies have been trying to come up with solutions and the first “janitor” of space will be launched by the Swiss Space Centre at EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausonne).

Who will the janitor of space be I hear you ask? Well step up the ‘neatest’ satellite that will enter space in 2018; the mighty Clean Space One! It will not completely vanquish every piece of space debris out there; it will literally get the job done one lump of debris at a time. It will roughly weigh a lightweight 30 kg and be launched by the European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle which is a planned small space plane for handling lower cost launches. The little-known and hyperambitious European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle projected vehicle is carried to a high altitude launch from the back of a modified Airbus A300  jet aircraft. The project was announced in 2013 and is intended to be in service in 2017.

Once in orbit Clean Space One will safely link up with a large piece of space debris, for first mission in the programme it will link up with Switzerland’s out-of-commission SwissCube nanosatellite, latching onto it like a hunter catching its prey, then together it will guide the unused satellite to its fiery fate, burning both the ‘janitor’ and the rubbish on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This expensive clean-up will cost roughly $26 million dollars (roughly £16 million pounds) and that includes the specialised launch system. It is a hefty price to pay but worth it in the long run if it will lead to a big reduction in space debris, even if it is not by the Clean Space One itself, but by its example. Perhaps more space agencies and companies will take inspiration from this exciting new rubbish busting satellite!

Now that is not to say Clean Space One has not been the only idea, the Swiss satellite has not been the only contender over the years to vie for the not so coveted job of this starting massive scale space clean-up, a few space agencies have put forward some rather daring ideas and some so crazy they may just work! This includes the rumour surrounding The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and their partnership with Nitto Seimo. Now may automatically think Nitto Seimo is a company that specialises in aerospace engineering or space technology. No, rather Nitto Seimo is a manufacturer of fishing nets and the JAXA are rumoured to have commissioned the company to make a giant net that will be deployed to sweep up Earth’s space junk. Once full the metal net will be dragged back to Earth where, along with the space rubbish, it will burn up in our atmosphere, thus solving our space debris problem… or not? They have yet to answer how to stop the net from capturing the active and used satellites? I am pretty sure any astronauts aboard the International Space Station may not be so happy seeing a massive net coming their way signalling their impending doom! Scary thought!

Another interesting method that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States has been working on is not so much aimed at cleaning up the decommissioned and idle satellites but to give them a new lease on life!  Aptly named the Phoenix program, DARPA will use robots that will tag along on a commercial satellites launch and attach themselves to an inactive satellite. Once attached it will use materials on the satellite to bring it back to life ‘from the ashes’ and make it a low costing communications network for the U.S military. So far they have targeted 140 defunct satellites and aim to begin breathing life back into these select pieces of space debris from 2015. Albeit they will not be reducing the amount of debris orbiting around the earth but this will slow down the amount of extra satellites in the orbit around the Earth.

If they really want to clear up the space debris maybe they should consider NASA’s comic book-inspired idea of lasers! But not to destroy the debris because that would obviously just create lots more pieces of rubbish but on a tinier scale. Instead NASA wants to use lasers to nudge debris out of the way. They would place the laser on one of the Earth’s poles where the atmosphere is thinner and send pulses of photo pressure to nudge and push objects out of the way of a launch or to try and avoid a collision with an existing functioning satellite in space. Again this does not actually do anything to reduce debris in space but could be a quick fix for any satellites heading for a collision course with any mischievous debris.

Essentially the Swiss Clean Space One seems to be the most logical and probably most effective method of actually reducing space debris around the Earth. What’s more is they are hoping to make a whole family of ready-made “janitors” to bring down all sorts of shapes and sizes of defunct satellites and debris and so are definitely pioneering the concept of cleaning up the space around the earth, not just for the good of the Earth itself, but also to make it safer for existing satellites and future launches on a more permanent basis.

 

(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)

 


2 Comments

semaj · March 21, 2016 at 22:20

How incredible that the ISS never gets hit by any of this space junk. It must be one helluva radar system to track all that junk and at the speed it is travelling. Is the radar on earth or in orbit? If its on earth can someone explain how is it possible to track 20,000 objects travelling at 17k mph from an earth spinning at 1k mph? Air traffic control takes on a whole new meaning!

    admin · March 22, 2016 at 12:18

    Dear Semaj, thank you for your questions. The ISS has not yet been hit by a significant piece of debris thankfully because space is big. All the debris is spread across hundreds of thousands of cubic kilometres, so the chances are low but not insignificant.

    Is the radar on earth or in orbit?

    On Earth, though there are a multiple radar systems operated by different organisations (the most public being NASA, the USAF and ESA). There are also telescopes dedicated to tracking stuff in orbit too. Here are some links for you to explore:
    ESA’s Space Surveillance and Tracking
    NASA press release on Space Debris and Human Spacecraft
    USAF fact sheet on their optical tracking system
    The UK’s RAF Fylingdales station

    If its on earth can someone explain how is it possible to track 20,000 objects travelling at 17k mph from an earth spinning at 1k mph?

    I am not sure what you are looking for here. If you are incredulous that a single instrument can observe 20000 items simultaneously you are correct. It is more a matter of observing items individually to obtain the parameters of their orbits (the orbital elements). Once these are established each object’s location can be accurately predicted into the future, though I believe low orbit objects have to be monitored more often as atmospheric drag effects their orbits.

    I hope this helps you.

    (Edited to improve clarity- ADMIN)

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