Tag Archives: debris

Earth might develop ‘junk’ rings — but engineers are working to prevent that

Earth may one day have its own ring system — one made from space junk.

Rendering of man-made objects in Earth’s orbit. Image via ESA.

Whenever there are humans, pollution seems to follow. Our planet’s orbit doesn’t seem to be an exception. However, not all is lost yet! Research at the University of Utah is exploring novel ideas for how to clear the build-up before it can cause more trouble for space-faring vessels and their crews.

Their idea involves using a magnetic tractor beam to capture and remove debris orbiting the Earth.

Don’t put a ring on it

“Earth is on course to have its own rings,” says University of Utah professor of mechanical engineering Jake Abbott, corresponding author of the study, for the Salt Lake Tribune. “They’ll just be made of space junk.”

The Earth is on its way to becoming the fifth planet in the Solar System to gain planetary rings. However, unlike the rock-and-ice rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus, Earth’s rings will be made of scrap and junk. It would also be wholly human-made.

According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, there are an estimated 23,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than a softball; these are joined by a few hundreds of millions of pieces smaller than a softball. These travel at speeds of 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h), and pose an immense threat to satellites, space travel, and hamper research efforts.

Because of their high speeds, removing these pieces of space debris is very risky — and hard to pull off.

“Most of that junk is spinning,” Abbott added. “Reach out to stop it with a robotic arm, you’ll break the arm and create more debris.”

A small part of this debris — around 200 to 400 — burns out in the Earth’s atmosphere every year. However, fresh pieces make their way into orbit as the planet’s orbit is increasingly used and traversed. Plans by private entities to launch thousands of new satellites in the coming years will only make the problem worse.

Abbott’s team proposes using a magnetic device to capture or pull debris down into low orbit, where they will eventually burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’ve basically created the world’s first tractor beam,” he told Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just a question of engineering now. Building and launching it.”

The paper “Dexterous magnetic manipulation of conductive non-magnetic objects” has been published in the journal Nature.

A new approach to cleaning space junk is being tested in space right now

A rocket blasted off last Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and it could lead to a much cleaner orbit around our planet.

One of the satellites involved in the mission. Image credits ESA.

Known as the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale or ELSA-d, the mission aims to test a theoretical approach to cleaning out space junk. The craft will look for dead satellites around our planet, attach to them, and slowly push them towards our planet so they burn up in our atmosphere. According to Astroscale, the Japan-based company behind this mission, there are over 8,000 tons of debris in the Earth’s orbit, which represents a very real threat for services such as weather forecasting, telecommunications, and GPS systems.

Decommission mission

The mission will be trying out a new approach that involves using magnetic docking to capture space junk. While no actual junk will be captured just yet, two satellites — a ‘servicer’ and a ‘client’ satellite — were launched into orbit to test the approach. As part of ELSA-d, the servicer will release and then try to re-capture the client, which, essentially, serves as a mock piece of space junk.

This catch and release process will be repeated over the next six months. The UK-based ground team will use data from this step to improve the satellite’s ability to lock onto and dock with its targets.

One important thing to note is that the satellite isn’t meant to remove the clutter that is already in orbit. Rather, the team is after future satellites that, they say, will be equipped with special docking clamps before launch.

Space debris are a growing problem, one which can impact our lives in quite unpleasant ways. Taken to the extreme, such cluttering could even prevent us from ever leaving the Earth again — but we’re not there yet. For now, they just risk impacting and downing our satellites, meaning services that rely on orbital networks, such as GPS and mobile phones, are also at risk. They’re also a hazard to astronauts and other missions.

According to NASA, there are at least 26,000 pieces of space junk in orbit about the size of a softball. Going on along at roughly 17,500 mph, each could “destroy a satellite on impact”. Apart from that, another 500,000 pieces of debris represent “mission-ending threats”, the report adds. The rest, estimated at more than 100 million pieces, are around the same size as a grain of sand. That’s not to say they’re harmless, however — each could pierce a spacesuit

Clearing the Earth’s orbit would go a long way towards keeping us safe and happy, both on the surface and in space. Taking down what’s already there is, obviously, a very sensible approach; but so is limiting how much junk we’ll be putting there in the future. Missions such as ELSA-d showcase how we can prepare for a more sustainable use of outer space, an element that will only grow in importance as humanity makes bolder steps towards the stars.

Ricky Arnold, RemoveDEBRIS.

The International Space Station just launched a harpoon-toting satellite to keep it safe from space junk

The International Space Station (ISS) has just deployed its own robotic groundskeeper — christened RemoveDEBRIS, the small cubesat will work to clean Earth’s orbit of wreckage and debris.


Space debris plot.
Image credits NASA.

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation might get flashbacks of the Borg cube upon seeing the little satellite just launched by the ISS. But fret not, fans of old-timey sci-fi; although it carries a harpoon, this craft comes in peace. RemoveDEBRIS — the result of a collaboration between Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology, NanoRacks and a slew of other companies — will whizz about the ISS, spearing debris left and right to tidy up our orbit.


We’re not the tidiest species around if we’re being honest. We’ve actually managed to (somewhat-impressively) litter all the way out to space. It’s already full of decommissioned satellites, rocket wreckage, shards of solar panels, and flakes of paint. And we are still blasting stuff up there, making it increasingly crowded.

Space may sound like the ultimate rug to brush your mess under — but it’s not. At the speeds involved, even the flakes of paint currently orbiting Earth are massive threats. As Einstein quoth, “E=mc2“, and although these flakes are light (small values for ‘m’), they go very very fast, meaning they act like hypersonic projectiles with a lot of force behind them (‘E’). Luckily, we’ve yet to see a catastrophic collision between one our craft and such debris.

Not ones to bet on luck for long, however, NASA sent RemoveDEBRIS to — you’ll never guess — remove some of this debris. The cube-shaped satellite was recently launched towards the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. In its first test since arriving, the 100-kilogram (220 pounds) cubesat was just released from the station via the robotic arm Canadarm2, the agency writes. Researchers at the University of Surrey, England, have successfully established contact with the satellite after release. Surprisingly, the satellite is one of the biggest payloads the ISS ever deployed.

Ricky Arnold, RemoveDEBRIS.

Ricky Arnold of NASA prepares the RemoveDEBRIS satellite for deployment aboard the International Space Station.
Image credits NASA.

Over the next couple of months, engineers will monitor RemoveDEBRIS and run tests to ensure everything is functioning correctly. However, NASA doesn’t expect to break out the satellite’s harpoon until later this year. Beyond this sharp implement, RemoveDEBRIS also carries a net to catch junk with, and a large sail meant for braking or eventual deorbiting — and both instruments need to be tested separately. The current timetable for these tests, as listed by the University of Surrey, is:

  • A debris-catching net experiment, developed at Airbus’ site in Bremen, Germany, will be conducted in October. The main RemoveDebris spacecraft will release a small cubesat and let it drift away to a distance of about 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 feet). Then, the main spacecraft will eject the net in an attempt to capture it.
  • In December, RemoveDEBRIS will test vision-based navigation technology developed by Airbus in Toulouse, France. The technology will use a set of 2D cameras and a 3D lidar technology to track the second cubesat as it floats away from the main satellite.
  • In February 2019, the last of Airbus’ three experiments will take place. RemoveDEBRIS will fire a pen-size harpoon into a panel that will deploy from the main spacecraft attached to a boom.
  • Sometime during March 2019, RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will deploy a drag sail, developed by the Surrey Space Centre, which will speed up the satellite’s deorbiting process.

The drag sail is especially important, according to the agency. Via its use, the cubesat will avoid becoming the irony of becoming debris itself — the sail will slow down RemoveDEBRIS enough for it to fall back to Earth.

Ideally, RemoveDEBRIS will only be the first in a series of harpoon-wielding, net-totting janitor satellites. According to the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), there are over 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, and there are likely too many tiny bits for us to reliably track. It’s such a huge problem that researchers are even considering giving the ISS its own battery of laser weapons, just to keep it safe.

International Space Station.

New, powerful laser system proposed for the International Space Station’s defense

Space is a dirty place, so the ISS needs some lasers to blast it clean, researchers propose.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station.
Image credits NASA.

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, we’re in luck — an international group of scientists wants to see our most burning desire made real. They propose to install a laser defense system aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to blast at litter in the near-Earth orbit.

My kinda cleaning

The idea of ‘arming’ the ISS with laser batteries isn’t new but we’re just now getting to a place where we can develop systems compact and reliable enough to be practical aboard the station. To jump-start development, an international team of researchers from France, Italy, Japan, and Russia is pooling their efforts, according to Boris Shustov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

The system they’re considering would consist of orbital lasers aboard the ISS. It should be effective against the most common type of space debris around Earth — pieces that only measure a few centimeters.

The idea was first proposed by Japanese researchers back in 2015. The original project draft envisioned lasers using 10,000 optical fiber channels and would draw all of the ISS’s electrical output to work at full capacity, according to the team. That, understandably, isn’t a particularly attractive defensive system. The new project aims to provide the same power output by using 100 “thin rods” in lieu of the optical fibers. This would reduce the overall energy drain to only 5% of the ISS’s output — a twenty-fold decrease.

This version of the laser system would allow the ISS to fire laser bursts for 10 seconds, up to a range of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), with a recharge time of 200 seconds, according to Russian media. The whole system would weigh about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).

It’s a small price to pay, considering the benefits such a system would provide. The ISS still has to make routine adjustments to its orbit to avoid collisions with pieces of man-made junk. These bits are parts of former rockets or spacecraft that have been broken up into small pieces through mutual collisions over the years, or from the effects of space radiation.

They’re quite small, going very fast, and can have disastrous consequences to the ISS’s structural integrity should they hit. There’s also a lot of them. NASA is currently tracking about 17,000 pieces about the size of your fist and half a million pieces roughly the size of a marble. According to their estimates, there are over 200 million pieces over one millimeter in size still floating in Earth’s orbit at speeds in excess of 17,500 mph (over 28.100 km/h).

An impact with any single one of those fragments could jeopardize the ISS and its crew.

Credit: NASA.

The International Space Station is mounting a new device to protect it from space junk

A new tool will soon help protect astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) from the perils of space junk whizzing past at phenomenal velocities.

Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

Ever since humans have started sending ‘stuff’ into space, Earth’s low orbit has steadily grown into a cosmic dumpster. Suffice to say, objects like pieces of defunct satellites or shrapnel from exploding military rockets (yes, some people were this bright) can cause significant economic damage and could even claim human lives. Four times in its history the ISS crew has retreated to the docked Soyuz lifeboat due to a potential impact.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of junk out there, including 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects or so as big as a marble. Smaller pieces of debris, however, are virtually undetectable right now, but NASA estimates there are millions of objects that are 50 microns to 1 millimeter in diameter. That might not seem like such a big deal but consider that these tiny debris travel at 17,500 miles per hour. At these velocities, even an object with a tiny mass can exert a powerful kinetic energy capable of significant damage upon impact.

Damage to Sentinel-1A from collision with a 1mm object. Credit: ESA.

Damage to Sentinel-1A from a collision with a 1mm object. Credit: ESA.

I can sense the junk

Space junk is an ever growing problem. Credit: Quark Mag.

Space junk is an ever growing problem. Credit: Quark Mag.

To address a growing space junk problem, NASA is sending a nifty gadget called the Space Debris Sensor (SDS) with the upcoming SpaceX re-supply mission, scheduled for Dec. 12.

The device measures about one square meter. It will be mounted on an external payload site facing the velocity vector of the ISS (towards its ‘front’) where it will remain for at least 3 years. The location on the Columbus module is the same previously used by the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) which included two debris measurement sensors, exposed from February 2008 to September 2009.

SDS is comprised of two distinct and important layers. The first layer consists of a thin section of Kapton, which is a polyimide film that remains stable at extreme temperatures. Some 15 cm behind it lies the second Kapton layer which is dotted with sensors and wires.

Schematic of SDS. Credit: NASA.

Schematic of SDS. Credit: NASA.

With this configuration, the sensor can record size, speed, direction, or energy of any small debris it comes in contact with. This data is then beamed back to Earth where scientists at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and at the University of Kent in the UK are focused on interpreting it.

Armed with real-time impact data, researchers can then get a far better sense of how common small debris are and how their population changes with time. Ultimately, such knowledge will prove handy in future missions, manned or otherwise, enabling scientists to better plan ahead.

“[O]nce you know the hazard you can adjust the design of future missions to protect them from impacts, or you are more persuasive when telling satellite manufacturers they have to create less debris in future,” Dr. Mark Burchell, one of the co-investigators and collaborators on the SDS from the University of Kent, told Universe Today. “Or you know if you really need to get rid of old satellites/ junk before it breaks up and showers earth orbit with small mm scale debris.”

At the moment there is no real solution to space junk. However, there are some scientists working on ideas.

In 2012, Swiss scientists launched a pilot program called the CleanSpace One which is basically a ‘space janitor’. The satellite will track and offset debris so that their trajectory puts them on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere, to burn up on re-entry. Japan has a mission called Kounotori 6 which can tether space junk with electromagnetic forces. Astroscale, a Japanese startup, plans is to launch a satellite called ELSA-1 that will track debris and stick to it with glue. Other ideas are even wilder, like using lasers to vaporize the surfaces of small junk pieces, forming miniature trusters to force debris down towards the atmosphere. One recent project that the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently working on involves using powerful magnetic beams from a chaser satellite to nudge redundant satellites out of orbit.

JAXA’s mission to fish for space trash thwarted by faulty tether

A recent JAXA space-tiddying mission has ended in failure after a vital piece of hardware failed to deploy, officials said on Monday.

Artist’s impression of the tether.
Image credits Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

We’ve gotten pretty good at sending stuff into space, but our recovery game hasn’t kept up. As such, there’s a lot of trash currently whizzing about in Earth’s orbit — old satellites no longer in use, pieces of old rockets, and all kinds of similar waste. There are over one million distinct bodies floating around if you count down to the really small bits, the ESA estimated in 2013.

And there’s only so much trash you can sweep under the rug before it gets out of hand. With that in mind, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a ship dubbed “Kounotori” to the ISS on Friday morning to try and sort this mess out.

Among supplies such as water and batteries, Kounotori (meaning “stork”) carried an experimental trash-capturing module that JAXA built with fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo.

The 700-meter-long (2,300 feet) electrodynamic tether — spun from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum — was designed to generate an electrical field while moving through our planet’s magnetic field, attracting junk to it. The idea was to anchor it to a spaceship and use the tether to slow down as many pieces of debris as possible. This would cause them to steadily drop towards the planet, touch the atmosphere, and burn up safely. A pretty solid plan.

The mission didn’t go as expected, however. JAXA encountered problems while trying to deploy the tether. Technicians tried to fix the problems for days but due to the limited time-window the mission could take place (the carrier ship used was launched in December towards the ISS and scheduled to re-enter the atmosphere on Monday) the agency had to abort the mission.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” leading researcher Koichi Inoue said. “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

Before the mission, agency spokespersons said that JAXA planned to take these missions on a regular schedule, and even to “attach one tip of the tether to a targeted object.” Hopefully, this setback won’t disrupt JAXA’s space-cleaning ambitions.

Going off-world is never easy and success is never guaranteed. But not cleaning up Earth’s orbit could lock us on the planet for good. And that’s something we don’t want at all.

So take heart JAXA, we’re counting on you.


Swiss scientists to launch “janitor” satellite to clean up space mess

When we started putting satellites on orbit, few could have pondered the idea of space junk, and even fewer would have guessed that a time will come when we will have to clean up after our spatial enterprises. But the time came, and really soon, and space junk is a real problem. This is why Swiss researchers announced their plans for creating a ‘janitor’ satellite to get rid of the orbiting debris.

The 10-million-franc ($11-million) satellite called CleanSpace One is currently being built in Lausanne and it will be launched in 3-5 years, if nothing out of the ordinary happens. This is quite a necessary measure, because according to NASA there are currently 500,000 pieces of spent rocket stages, broken satellites and other debris flowing at speeds of about 28,000 kilometers per hour, fast enough to damage or even destroy pretty much every mission we can launch at the moment.

“It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation,” said Claude Nicollier, an astronaut and EPFL professor.

However, in order for the tidy machine to succeed in its mission, it has to address three major problems; the first one, is, of course, trajectory. It has to be able to constantly adapt its trajectory to that of the target, in order to fulfill its mission and not be harmed. Next, it has to be able to grab hold of the debris and stabilize it at the high speeds I told you above. Last but not least, it has to be able to take the debris and drop it into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn by friction.

Such a solution was quite needed, and who can be better for this job if not the Swiss?