Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Space: The Final Rubbish Frontier?

Orbiting our earth...16,000 pieces of debris larger than a fist.
Bits lost during space walks, pieces broken off by meteorite strikes, the remains of satellites that have collided with each other...all wizzing around at about 28,000kmph/17,000mph.
At risk, hundreds of satellites providing global communication that we take so much for granted: the net, mobile phones, GPS etc. When space junk collides, it only compounds the problem: in 2099, US and Ruskie satellites collided over Siberia, generating an estimated 1,000 pieces of new debris. That debris can also endanger astronauts' lives: the International Space Station (ISS) has had to move to get out of the traffic.
Now Swiss scientists are working on a solution: CleanSpace One, an $11m "janitor satellite". CleanSpace One could launch in 3-5yrs. It would grab a target satellite with a robotic arm or other mechanism and force it back toward Earth, where both would burn up on re-entry.
But engineers have to solve several problems to get the janitor to work properly. CleanSpace One has to get onto the same orbital plane as its target, latch onto it at high speed, and then de-orbit it. They're also working on a grasping mechanism that would work when the two objects are travelling at high speed and one is rotating.
So far CleanSpace One would be a one-shot deal, with each one being launched for a single-capture mission. That would mean a heck of a long time (and cost) before they'd make a dent in the floating junkyard. But currently, apart from using a ground-based laser, there seems no other option. Building more strength into satellite design to survive a 28,000kmph collision, is beyond our capabilities (well, unless there's some alien inspiration in Area 51???).
But after all, why should we litter space when it's a no-no here on Earth? 
PS: 24 March 2012 - ISS crew take to the liferafts as space junk comes dangerously near.

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