Several entities are developing orbiting “garbage trucks” to remove growing amounts of debris from space, experts told Bloomberg Wednesday.
Orbiting debris poses a serious risk to orbiting spacecraft, so several governments are building “garbage trucks” to make space safe again. Even the U.S. Department of Defense worries that debris could make it difficult to operate essential military satellites.
More than 50 years of human space exploration since the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957 has produced an extremely hazardous belt of orbiting debris. Scientists estimate that there are currently more than 100 million pieces of debris in orbit, and satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) log over 100 minor collisions with space debris every year.
Due to the enormous velocities of anything moving in space, a collision between a spacecraft and debris can destroy both objects and create even more debris. Scientists worry that this could create a feedback loop of collisions between garbage and spacecraft, starting a cascading effect called the Kessler Syndrome. Under this scenarios, enough debris could be created to prevent virtually any spacecraft from operating. Orbiting “garbage trucks” would ideally eliminate much of the problematic material before this point.
“It’s very easy to get something into orbit,” Bill Ailor, a research fellow at Aerospace Corp, told Bloomberg. “It’s the dickens to get it out.”
Aerospace Corp. is building a satellite capable of folding itself around debris, adding just enough drag to pull the junk into the atmosphere where it would burn up, then repeating the process. The corporation received a $500,000 grant from NASA for the project in April.
Another company, Ad Astra Rocket Co., is building a plasma rocket mothership equipped with disposable smaller rockets capable of rendezvousing with space junk and dragging it into the atmosphere or a safe orbit.
“What we are doing is developing a propulsion system that can enable you to do this multiple times,” Franklin Chang Diaz, a former NASA space shuttle commander and CEO of Ad Astra, told Bloomberg. “That’s what makes it different from other orbital debris removal concepts. The plasma engine enables you to do multiple removals in a single mission.”
Another project under development at Texas A&M University hopes to build a space “garbage truck” capable of absorbing and ejecting space junk, gaining energy from the interaction that it can use to fly to the next piece of garbage.
An experimental Japanese mission to remove space junk from Earth’s orbit utterly failed in February. Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) worked with NASA to develop a tether-like device to catch and drag space junk out of orbit around Earth.
The Japanese tether was supposed to generate electricity by swings through the Earth’s magnetic field, which it would use to slow down space junk until it was pulled it into a lower orbit where it would ultimately burn up. Japanese efforts intended to neutralize space debris from cast-off equipment from old satellites and pieces of rocket, but problems arose quickly and the tether was unable to be deployed.
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