Space. It’s the final frontier and in serious need of an ‘adopt a highway’ program. The amount of space debris surrounding our planet is astounding.
Dr. Stuart Grey, a lecturer at University College London, created a chilling visualization of the explosion of space debris. Each piece is tracked by space-track.org and shows the explosion during the Cold War and today with the private space race.
Ignore the YouTube comment trolls. That’s not to scale.
We have a problem. If left unchecked, lower Earth orbit will become unsafe to operate in. No more rockets. No more satellites. No leaving Matt Damon on Mars.
Cleaning Space Debris
Luckily, where there is a problem, solutions arise. No one is giving up on leaving Matt Damon on Mars. Hey, at least they left him with potatoes. If Matt Damon can science the shit out of becoming part Irish, we can figure out space trash.
Solar Sails. Yeah… I thought of the Armageddon scene too. But don’t discount the idea for space trash. Solar sails have long been thought of as a candidate for propulsion in deep space missions. What can be used for propulsion can also work as a drag chute.
The basic premise is a vehicle would fly around attaching solar sails to large pieces of space debris. The resulting drag would effectively deorbit the debris.
NASA already has tested the NanoSail-D, and it has proven its deorbiting capability. It’s cheap and could work as a fishing net grabbing multiple pieces of debris. Its major con? There’s no control over where the debris comes down. Not an issue with small pieces but preferably space agencies want to bring debris down over the ocean.
Lasers. The U.S. Air Force has been developing a concept known as the laser broom since the 1990s. It’s exactly what it sounds like. A ground-based laser would hit a small piece of a space debris to vaporize it. The resulting cloud of vapor would slow down the bigger piece of space junk sending it to a fiery demise in the atmosphere.
What could go wrong with that? Space junk is unpredictable. The orbits are erratic, and if it’s a miss, we either made the problem worse or accidentally on purpose took out a rival country’s brand new spy satellite.
There are pros to the system. It doesn’t involve sending a vehicle up to attach solar sails to anything. Everything is ground-based. It’s cheap. Work out the targeting kinks, and this could be the answer we are looking for.
Satellite janitors. Small satellites sent up to take out derelict satellites or other big pieces of space debris. We will get to see the proof of concept in the next few years. CleanSpace One is being developed to deorbit the now-defunct SwissCube satellite.
Initially, the CleanSpace One project was depicted using a claw to grab space debris. Now, the team behind it will use a conical net to grab the satellite. It has the benefit of grabbing more space debris and dealing with the unstable orbit of the SwissCube.
Here’s a visualization of what the CleanSpace One will seek to accomplish.
Those are three of hundreds of ideas. What will it take to clean up the mess we created. A combination of everything. The ground-based laser broom could handle the small debris. Using a system similar to the CleanSpace One could answer the larger space debris question without endangering working satellites with a laser shot from the surface.
In the future, it comes down to better planning. Satellite lifecycle planning should also include the ability to deorbit when they are no longer being used. SpaceX and others are rushing to create reusable rockets, eliminating the random pieces left over from decades of rocket launches.
Our future is the final frontier. It’s in our best interest to make sure the path to the stars doesn’t look like it’s in desperate need of a littering crew.