With plans underway to lasso asteroids, establish settlements on Mars and send tourists out for quick jaunts, the fact that our future lies in Space is indisputable. However some of these dreams will be left unfulfilled unless we do something about all the junk we have abandoned in Space in the last 55 years.
When humans first began exploring space there had been no plans to leave behind their footprint. But when the connection with American satellite Vanguard One was lost and it kept rotating in the earth's orbit with no consequences, scientists became increasingly comfortable abandoning things that had outlived their use.
NASA estimates that there are currently over 500,000 pieces of man-made trash ranging from tiny pieces broken off rockets to giant satellites, fuel tanks and even a million dollar toolkit that NASA astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn Piper lost, floating around in space. While this may not seem like a lot given how vast the area is, large objects like satellites tend to cluster in similar orbits, resulting in crashes which create even more debris. One such incident occurred in 2009 when the then operational Iridium 33 collided with a decommissioned Russian satellite resulting in over 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters, some of which narrowly missed the International Space Station and other operating satellites.
A worse case scenario would be if they fall out of orbit and head to earth - While most end up getting burnt by the atmosphere upon re-entry such was not the case when the 550lbs, Delta 2 plunged to earth and landed near Georgetown,Texas, creating a 30ft. crater. Luckily, it was a sparsely populated area and nobody got injured.
It is therefore no wonder that space experts all over the world are trying to figure out how to solve this growing problem. Over the years, there have been many ideas ranging from sending a kite-like contraption to capture the big pieces to shooting up bursts of air at the debris so as to move them to orbits further out or possibly even dislodge them so they (hopefully) burn up as they re-enter the earth's atmosphere. However, none of them seem to have come to fruition yet.
But now there may be a solution that seems to have the potential to be tested as early as 2018. The brainchild of researchers from Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausaanne the Clean Space One satellite that is being developed in conjunction with various partners including the European Space Agency uses a combination of custom and readily available technologies.
On September 10th, the company entered into an agreement with Swiss Aerospace firm S3 who will invest over 10 million USD to help assemble and test the technology. In addition to that the Aerospace company will also provide a cheaper way for the janitor satellite to launch into orbit.
According to the researchers, the satellite will be first carried to an altitude of about 33,000 feet inside an unmanned shuttle called Suborbital Reusable Shuttle (SOAR) which will piggyback on an A300 jet liner. Once it reaches the required altitude, SOAR will be released and it will fly further up to an altitude of 263,000 ft. When it gets there it will launch a rocket booster that will take the Clean Space One satellite up an additional 435 miles and then release it into orbit. SOAR will glide back to earth for reuse.
Once there, the satellite which is equipped with thrusters will meet up with a pre-determined satellite, clamp its claws around it and leap back to earth, kamikaze style. If everything goes according to plan the inaugural Clean Space One satellite will head to Space in 2018, to pick up its first piece of junk - the 10-cm wide decommissioned Swiss Cube!
Besides the fact that it sounds like a plausible solution, what is exciting researchers even more is the relatively low cost of just over $10 million USD, thanks to the innovative way it is being transported up. We sure hope it all works out so that space can return to being as pristine as it was, when we first visited.
Resources; Gizmag.com, dailymail.co.uk