Tag Archives: space junk

Cluster of satellites in Earth's orbit.

Space junk is becoming a problem and we need to talk about it

When we think about junk, things like garbage bins or landfills come to mind — but there’s another junk problem, one that’s hard to see with the naked eye from the Earth. Space junk, researchers warn, is a growing problem, and if we don’t address it quickly, it may soon be too much to handle.

Satellites revolving around the earth. Image credits: ESA

There are a total of 6,542 satellites that are currently occupying Earth’s orbit, but only half of them are actually doing something. The other half are inactive — they’re simply junk. To make matters even more problematic, over 1,200 satellites were launched in 2020 — this marks a record, but generally speaking, we could expect more and more satellites to be plopped into orbit.

Now, imagine one day Earth’s orbit becomes overcrowded and two such large satellites hit each other. Both the satellites would get broken into smaller pieces that would further clash with other satellites and trigger a series of unstoppable collisions and a lot of junk pieces flying around. This has happened a few times already.

Due to these collisions, our planet’s orbit gets more and more cluttered with debris, to the extent that eventually, we will end up having no room to launch more rockets and satellites. Such a situation in which Earth’s orbit becomes completely unusable because of large amounts of space junk is referred to as Kessler syndrome — a phenomenon first envisioned by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978.

Fortunately, we’re not at that stage yet. For now, space junk does not seem like a big problem but aerospace experts suggest that in the coming years, the number of satellite launches and space missions could increase dramatically, and this is likely to add more junk to space and make Earth’s orbit more crowded than ever. Simply put, if we don’t start taking action quickly, it will soon be too late.

What is space junk and why it’s dangerous?

Space junk is a generic term. Unusable satellite parts, rocket components, and debris of man-made machines in space are called “space junk”. Until now, NASA has tracked 27,000 such items that are aimlessly moving in Earth’s orbit. This orbital debris can move at a speed of 24,000 km/h (15,000 mph), and therefore any such fast-moving piece of junk can hit and destroy a functional satellite or a passing by rocket at any time.  

A graphical representation of debris in Earth’s orbit. Image credits: NASA

We’re already seeing some of this damage in action. In March 2021, the 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS), a space control unit under the US Space Force confirmed that a small debris piece named Object 48078 hit China’s Yunhai 1-02 satellite. According to Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, Object 48078 was a remnant of Zenet-2, a Russian rocket that was launched in the year 1996. McDowell further added that the “Yunhai 1-02 satellite broke up” after the collision. 

“Finding ways to remove at least some of all that space junk should be a top global priority.”

Donald Kessler, Retired NASA Scientist

However, such collisions due to space junk are still rare. Before the Yunhai 1-02 crash, the last collision reported was in 2009. Moreover, such collisions can be prevented by mission controllers by adjusting the position of a satellite. Every year many satellites are manoeuvered multiple times in order to avoid collision with space junk, even the International Space Station (ISS) has performed more than 20 junk avoidance maneuvers since its launch in 1998.

The space junk problem does not seem like a big issue for now but if not dealt with properly, it may lead to chaos in our planet’s orbit in the future — chaos that will be extremely difficult to address.

A small but growing problem

Before 2010, only around 100 satellites were launched every year but in the year 2020, for the first time, more than 1000 satellites were sent to space. The numbers continue to increase in 2021 as well because so far, 1400 new satellites have already been placed in orbit this year. 

Moreover, in the early days of space exploration, there used to be only a few agencies that would send satellites into space — like NASA, Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency. Nowadays, active private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin have created a boom in the aerospace industry and are launching more and more satellites. These companies are planning to launch mega-constellations (groups of satellites that cover large orbital area) in Earth’s orbit to provide wireless broadband internet services across the globe, in the coming years — an exciting project that is bound to help millions around the world, but which also poses new threats to the problem of space junk.

These mega-constellations would bring an unprecedented increase in the number of satellites revolving around Earth (a report suggests that the Earth’s orbit may have 100,000 satellites by 2030). With every launch, the amount of space junk will also increase making the orbit more congested. As a result, both the existing and new satellites will have to perform more collision avoidance maneuvers. 

Therefore, more fuel and resources would be spent on saving the satellites from space junk. Sooner or later, with an increasing number of space missions, the growing amounts of space junk might raise the frequency of outer space collisions and over the course of time, it could ultimately cause the Kessler syndrome.

Is it possible to free Earth’s orbit of space junk?

Cleaning up space junk is not as easy as it sounds. For starters, imposing a ban doesn’t seem like a promising idea.

Rockets are launched to explore space and collect information about other planets in our galaxy, whereas, man-made satellites are placed in Earth’s orbit in order to facilitate communication, navigation, military assistance, earth observation, weather forecast, mineral search, and many other activities that hold great importance for humans. Therefore, banning space missions and new satellite launches is obviously not a solution.

ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration). Image credits: Astroscale/Wikimedia Commons

Cleaning our planet’s orbit is both an expensive and complicated process. However, researchers and space agencies are working on this and they keep coming up with new and interesting methods to remove space junk from Earth’s orbit.

Around 2012, a group of researchers working at EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) came up with the idea of a special satellite (called CleanSpaceOne) that could attach itself to a targeted piece of space junk and drag the same back towards earth. The researchers proposed that during its journey to Earth, both the satellite and space junk would be burnt by the atmospheric heat.

This idea sounds promising, but it will also be costly, and bringing down satellites one at a time will be very time-consuming.

In 2016, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent an electrodynamic tether in space that could direct space junk towards Earth’s atmosphere by using the planet’s magnetic field. A couple of years later, the Surrey Space Center in the UK launched the RemoveDEBRIS project in April 2018, this project was focused to encourage and demonstrate various space junk removal technologies. Under the RemoveDEBRIS initiative the effectiveness of methods involving net, harpoon, and drag sail for catching space junk was tested.

Researchers at Purdue University also developed a drag sail named Spinnaker3 in 2020. This powerful drag sail is an efficient and cost-effective way to deal with space junk as it does not require any fuel during its operation. Moreover, it can drag even rocket-sized space debris back to Earth’s atmosphere so that they get destroyed in peace. Spinnaker3 is expected to launch in November 2021 on a Firefly rocket.

A concept image of CleanSpaceOne chaser. Image credits: Lucpiguet/Wikimedia Commons

Astroscale, an orbital junk removal company from Japan, launched the ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) satellite in March 2021. This advanced debris removal system uses magnetic satellite catching technology to pick small inactive satellites from Earth’s orbit. ELSA-d successfully completed its first satellite capturing test on August 25, 2021, and it is now moving on to the next phases of its space junk removing process.  

The bottom line

As is generally the case, prevention is better than cure. In the case of space junk, it’s not yet a big problem — but by the time it becomes a big problem, it may be too big to handle efficiently, which is why it’s best to act as quickly as possible.

Aerospace experts are following this closely and if their research is supported, we’ll likely soon see effective waste-management strategies for space — and by the time we’re ready to go on our first interplanetary picnic, we’ll have a clean, green (hopefully), and beautiful orbital view.

Russian space junk knocks out Chinese satellite

Illustration of the relative distribution of debris in Earth’s orbit. Space debris could soon become a major cause of satellite damage. (Image: WikiImages)

The Russians apparently have been unintentionally playing the galactic version of bumper cars. It has been reported that the Chinese satellite Yunhai 1-02 broke apart into several pieces in March after it whacked into space junk from part of a Russian Zenit-2 rocket.

Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell spotted the wreckage recently in a data log from the U.S. Space Force. The Force’s sensors found the wreck in mid-March, and updated their space-debris catalog with the comment regarding the Russian piece – Object 48078 – “collided with satellite.” According to McDowell, the Russian piece was part of a Zenit-2 rocket that launched a spy satellite in 1996.

McDowell found the collision by going back through the orbital data and discovered that Object 48078 and Yunhai 1-02 passed within just a little more than a half-mile of one another at the same time that the Chinese satellite broke apart. That distance is just within the margin of error for bumping distance of two objects zipping around the planet faster than a bullet. According to McDowell, the crash created at least 37 pieces of additional space rubble.

While wounded, Yunhai 1-02 seems to still be trucking along, as amateur radio operators are supposedly still picking up signals according to McDowell.

Currently, more than 29,000 of satellites and space debris tracked by Space Surveillance Networks are circling Earth. Close to 2,000 of these belong to SpaceX who plans to have 12,000 first-generation satellites orbiting our planet after all is said and done. According to Space.com, the company’s satellites are involved in almost 1,600 close encounters every week and soon will be involved in 90% of close encounters in low-earth orbit (LEO).

Much more debris — too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions — exists in the near-Earth space environment. Since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in LEO), an impact of just a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems.

Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft. A number of space shuttle windows were replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks. In fact, millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in LEO.

February 2009 saw the worst collision to date when the U.S. telecommunication satellite Iridium 33 rammed into the defunct Russian military satellite Kosmos-2251. That incident, in turn, spawned more than 1,000 individual incidents.

This has all prompted the company Rocket Lab to put into motion plans to test space junk removal technologies for the Finnish company Aurora Propulsion Technologies. In the fourth quarter of this year, the company will be launching the cubesatallite AuroraSat-1 to LEO using water-based propellant and mobility control of its Resistojets that can assist CubeSats with detumbling capabilities and propulsion-based attitude control.

Taking into account debris of all sizes, currently, there are approximately 130 million objects of space debris all told.


Orbital ‘littering’ fee might solve our space junk problem

A computer-generated image representing space debris as could be seen from high Earth orbit. Credit: NASA.

Where humans go, trash isn’t too far behind — and that includes space, too. In fact, space junk is a growing problem that may make it impossible to launch things beyond Earth’s atmosphere if we don’t do something about it. A new study is proposing an innovative solution: charge a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

An orbital space tax

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, human activity has been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major world power has contributed to this growing space junk problem.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of debris out there, including approximately 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects 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 pieces of 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.

Below you can see what a tiny speck of space debris did to the super-reinforced glass of the International Space Station’s Cupola — if you had any doubt this isn’t serious business. Now, imagine the kind of damage a larger object can do. A person on Earth even got hit by a piece of space debris in 1997.

This isn’t a crack on a car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

Most proposals for decluttering Earth’s low-orbit have focused on technology, such as giant collecting nets, janitorial satellites with harpoons, even Earth-based giant lasers.

The Tragedy of the Commons (in space)

Matthew Burgess is not a space engineer but rather an economist — yet his take on cleaning up Earth’s low-orbit may be more impactful than any fancy technology.

In a new study, Burgess, who is an economist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and colleagues suggest charging satellite operators and other agents involved in launching stuff into orbit an annual fee.

The reasoning behind this idea is that space is a common resource and, despite its name, it is not limitless — not in the amount of junk we can safely dispose of in orbit, at least. This is similar to how we (should) tax carbon in order to account for the negative externalities of fossil fuels in the environment.

“Space is a common resource, but companies aren’t accounting for the cost their satellites impose on other operators when they decide whether or not to launch,” Burgess, who is also an assistant professor in Environmental Studies and an affiliated faculty member in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a press release. “We need a policy that lets satellite operators directly factor in the costs their launches impose on other operators.”

According to the study’s results, an annual fee of $235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040.

The tax on orbital use for satellites would be calculated to reflect the cost to the industry of putting another satellite into orbit. This includes the project costs of additional collision risk and space debris production.

“To us as environmental economists, the situation in orbit very much resembles other common resources we’re familiar with (e.g. fisheries, traffic, atmospheric carbon). With these resources, overexploitation typically occurred (or continues to occur) until incentive-based policies have been put into place. When we looked at the policy conversation, we saw a lot of discussion about technical and managerial fixes — things like debris removal nets or harpoons, and discussions of keep-out zones or deorbit guidelines. We saw very little discussion considering what an incentive-based solution would look like. Given our backgrounds, we wanted to contribute that piece to the conversation,” Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and the paper’s lead author, told ZME Science in an e-mail.

Such fees would increase over time in order to account for the rising value of cleaner orbits — scarcity begets value, after all.

The model used by the researchers suggests that an optimal fee would increase at a rate of 14% per year, reaching $235,000 per satellite per year by 2040.

“Economic data was one of the big challenges. There’s a lot of physical data on the objects in orbit — where the object is, when it was launched, who launched it, when it’s expected to decay, etc. — but there’s a lot less data at the per-object level on how much revenue individual satellites produce and how much they individually cost. We used highly aggregated sector-level economic data as a result,” Rao said.

Burgess and Rao compared the forecasted impact of orbital-use fees under various scenarios to business as usual (no fees to operate in space) and technological fixes like janitorial satellites and lasers.

The results suggest that an orbital fee introduces an economic incentive that forces operators to think twice before they add another satellite in orbit unless it really adds value.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, these kinds of fees might actually help the satellite industry grow from $600 billion under a business-as-usual scenario to around $3 trillion. According to the researchers, the massive uptake in valuation can be pinned to reduced collisions and collision-related costs.

However, like other forms of taxes, an orbital-use fee would only work if all countries and agents launching satellites would participate in the program. There are now nearly a dozen countries that perform satellite launches and about 30 that own satellites but rely on others to launch them.

But if one country refuses to participate, the whole scheme is dismantled, similar to how a tax haven attracts corporations, leaving their home countries with no revenue.

“There are many ways the orbital-use fees could be collected and used. In the paper, we outline one possible model based on the Vessel Day Scheme (an agreement which regulates use of a tuna fishery between a group of nations in the Pacific, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement). In this model, the fees would be internationally harmonized and nations with satellite operators would collect fees from the operators subject to their laws. The revenues could then be used as the collecting nation sees fit,” Rao said.

“So for example, if company A was launching from the US, the US could collect the internationally-harmonized orbital-use fees from company A and spend it domestically, invest it in debris cleanup R&D, refund it to US taxpayers, or find some other use for it. The nice thing about these kinds of fees (“Pigouvian taxes”) is that their effectiveness doesn’t hinge on what the revenue is used for,” he added.

As such, there are many challenges to this approach but this doesn’t make it any less appealing. Frankly, we need to hit space junk with everything we’ve got; otherwise, we might risk never being able to safely leave this planet and reach our full potential as a space-faring species.

“In other sectors, addressing the Tragedy of the Commons has often been a game of catch-up with substantial social costs. But the relatively young space industry can avoid these costs before they escalate,” Burgess said.

“Orbit use might seem like an “out there” topic, but satellites are actually very integrated in our daily lives. GPS, remote sensing, and satellite telecommunications power a number of consumer products, and that’s before we talk about government uses, responses to natural disasters, and new innovations that are just emerging. We all have a vested interest in making sure the environment where these valuable assets live stays usable, now and moving forward,” Rao wrote in an e-mail.

The findings appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Credit: Surrey Nanosats.

Watch this awesome giant net collect garbage in space

Where humans go, we leave trash — and that includes space, too. In fact, space junk is a growing problem that threatens to one day make it impossible to launch things beyond Earth’s atmosphere if we don’t do something about it. In a bid to clean our orbit, scientists have experimented with a device that harpoons a net and targets space debris to capture it. It apparently is as awesome as it sounds, seeing how the test was reportedly successful — with live video to back it up.

Credit: Surrey Nanosats.

Credit: Surrey Nanosats.

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, we’ve been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major world power has contributed to this growing space junk problem, with China in the lead most recently. In 2007, some Chinese general had the bright idea to actually test an anti-satellite missile in the field — that is, in Earth’s low-orbit. When China used this test to destroy their own Fengyun-1C weather satellite, the event was one of the worst single contributors to orbital debris, creating some 3,300 fragments.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of junk out there, including approximately 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects 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.

Yes, the horrific scenes from Gravity are extremely plausible and astronauts stationed at the International Space Station are well aware of this when they’re sometimes ordered to man the escape pods. The waiting is not very pleasant at all, to say the least.

Space debris plot. Image credits NASA.

In order to clean Earth’s orbit of space junk, scientists have proposed all sorts of solutions, some wackier than others. The Japanese Kounotori 6 can tether space junk with electromagnetic forces. Astroscale, a Japanese startup, plans 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 thrusters 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.

RemoveDEBRIS, a project developed by British researchers at the University of Surrey, is another space janitorial project — and one of the most promising ones to boot. In June, the cube-shaped satellite was recently launched towards the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. It was later released from the station via the robotic arm Canadarm2.

On 16 September, the 100-kilogram satellite was actually tested in real-life conditions after it used a net to capture a deployed target simulating space debris. The object actually moved faster than expected, but the harpooned net was nevertheless able to catch up with it, as you can witness in the embedded footage below. The ensnared debris, along with the net itself, will eventually fall into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up before it can do any damage to those in space.

This isn’t a crack on a car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

The net consists of ultra-lightweight polyethylene Dyneema, typically used to make mountaineering ropes. Six weights attached to the net, which are actually small motors, helped it to expand to a full size of 5 m (16 feet) across. In the final version of the setup, the net would be connected to a chaser spacecraft with a tether. Once a piece of space debris is captured, the chaser would fire its engines and drag the junk into the planet’s atmosphere, where it would disintegrate. This time around, however, the tether was left out because it could have caused some unexpected complications. Specifically, engineers were worried that the satellite would rebound and hit the main RemoveDebris spacecraft, which still has some more experiments to run.

“We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the net technology. While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering and coordination between the Surrey Space Centre, Airbus and our partners – but there is more work to be done. These are very exciting times for us all,” said Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre.

For six years prior to launching the satellite, researchers have been testing parabolic flights in special drop towers and thermal vacuum chambers. Next, researchers plan on testing other technologies such as a vision-based navigation system that uses cameras and LiDaR technology to analyse and observe potential pieces of debris; the first harpoon capture technology used in orbit; and a drag-sail that will finally bring RemoveDEBRIS into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will be destroyed, bringing its mission to a close.

Credit: Airbus.

Airbus tests harpoon meant to shoot down satellite-sized space junk

Credit: Airbus.

Credit: Airbus.

Airbus wants to hunt the biggest fish in space using a formidable harpoon it recently tested at one of its facilities in the UK, at the Surrey Space Centre. The harpoon is meant to grapple some of the biggest and most dangerous pieces of space junk like old rocket upper-stages or defunct satellites, which have been littering Earth’s orbit for decades.

The .9-meter-long (3 ft.) harpoon was fired using compressed air into a panel that mimics the kinds of material used to build satellite casings. These composite panels are mostly made of aluminum and are no more than 3cm-thick. During the tests, the harpoon punctured through the panel like a hot knife through butter, then immediately deployed a set of barbs that open up and stop the harpoon from falling out. In the live version, the harpoon will be tethered so a janitor spacecraft can then drag the big heap of junk into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will be disintegrated.

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, we’ve been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major world power has contributed to this growing space junk problem, with China in the lead most recently. In 2007, some Chinese general had the bright idea to actually test an anti-satellite missile in the field — that is, in Earth’s low-orbit. When China used this test to destroy their own Fengyun-1C weather satellite, the event was one of the worst single contributors to orbital debris, creating some 3,300 fragments.

NASA is monitoring some of the biggest pieces of junk out there, including approximately 20,000 objects as big or bigger than a baseball and 50,000 objects 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.

But Airbus isn’t after the small change — instead, the mission of its menacing space harpoon is to hunt down some of the biggest junk in Earth’s orbit. One of its primary targets is ESA’s Envisat Earth observation satellite, which suddenly became defunct in 2012. The target is more or less arbitrary but Airbus engineers reckon that if their harpoon can handle Envisat, it can handle almost anything else.

Next, Stevenage engineers will fire the projectile over a distance of 25 meters — the sort of separation over which a real janitor spacecraft would have to do its cleaning work. A smaller version of the harpoon will launch next month, hitching a ride with a net-catching satellite designed by the U.K.’s Surrey Satellite Technology — another space junk janitorial proposal.

Other ideas include the Japanese 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 thrusters 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.

Credit: NASA.

China deems blasting space junk with a laser station is feasible

Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

It’s no secret that humans have made a mess out of our planet — literally. The most plastic-riddled place on Earth, for instance, is an island in the middle of the freaking Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, our litter problem has grown to cosmic proportions. NASA estimates that there are millions of fragments of man-made debris zipping in Earth’s orbit at more than 17,500 mph. At such velocities, even a tiny piece of junk like a nut or bolt can wreak havoc on our satellite infrastructure as well as threaten the lives of astronauts. 

Since we began sending satellites into space in the late 1950s, we’ve been leaving behind trash with every launch. Every major power has contributed to this growing space junk problem, with China chiefly amongst them most recently. In 2007, some Chinese general had the bright idea to actually test an anti-satellite missile in the field — that is, in Earth’s low-orbit. When China used this test to destroy their own Fengyun-1C weather satellite, the event was one of the worst single contributors to orbital debris, creating some 3,300 fragments. But at least China is trying to make amends.

Scientists at the Air Force Engineering University in China completed a computer simulation that found it feasible to blast orbiting junk with space-based lasers. This kind of solution was first suggested in 2014 when the space junk crisis was becoming more evident. The present simulation confirms this concept can work by calculating how long they would have to target debris and the best angles to do so.

According to the team’s calculations, a space laser would have to emit 20 bursts of light/second for two minutes to destroy debris up to 10 cm in length. Larger debris can also be broken down into more manageable bits or deflected so the new trajectory sends the junk crashing down Earth’s upper atmosphere.

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

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

Quan Wen and colleagues at the Air Force Engineering University wrote that a “laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency”, and concluded space debris removal by using a space-based laser is theoretically feasible.

Not everyone is happy about the prospect of having a giant laser system deployed in space, however. Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, warned in March last year that the Chinese are “building weapons to operate from the earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons” and they’re developing “those capabilities to challenge the United States of America.” The general concluded that “WE cannot allow that to happen.”

Indeed, a laser weapon in space, even if deployed as a janitor, wont be taken well by the rest of the international community. Luckily, there are other groups working on other ideas. RemoveDebris, a project based at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre and funded by the European Union, wants to remove debris with instruments akin to a fishing net and harpoon. The European Space Agency (ESA) is toying with using magnets for the same purpose.

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.

brane-craft

Wrapping paper-like spacecraft might one day collect junk and throw it into Earth’s atmospheric shredder

NASA has awarded a second round of funding for an experimental project aimed at curbing ‘space pollution’. The project involves deploying a swarm of ultra-thin sheets, only 10-microns in thickness, to wrap around the debris. Eventually, the craft and collected trash crash into Earth’s atmosphere where they’re thermally disintegrated.

brane-craft

What the Brane junk janitor might look like. Credit: Credit: Siegfried Janson/NASA.

The spacefill

Where humans go, trash is never far away. You’ll find human-sourced litter in the deep Amazon jungle or on Antarctica’s frozen coasts. Space is no exception with at least 500,000 pieces of junk — not counting the millions of micro-sized objects like paint flecks — whizzing past at more than 17,500 miles per hour around the planet’s orbit. This is a growing problem because space junk begets more junk after they crash into each other, splattering into smithereens.

Space junk is such a pain in the thruster because even people’s lives are at stake. Astronauts manning the International Space Station were put on high alert and ordered to take to their escape pods more than once because of the risk of crashing with debris. Some scientists have warned that if nothing is done to address the issue fast, Earth’s orbit might be so clogged that we won’t be able to viably launch anything beyond it anymore. Thought Saturn’s rings look cool? We aren’t that far off from inadvertently forming our own set.

This isn't a crack on car's windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS' Cupola -- the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by "possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across," writes the ESA.

This isn’t a crack on car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” writes the ESA.

So what can we do?

In 2012, Swiss scientists launched a pilot program called the CleanSpace One which is basically a ‘space janitor’. The function of the satellite is to track and offset debris so that their trajectory puts them on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. 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 pieces and force them down. None of these ideas have left the drawing board.

Out of all the proposed projects so far though, the Brane Craft designed by Aerospace Corporation might take the cake. It’s such an audacious project that you have to wonder what its engineers eat for breakfast. But is it crazy enough to work? You be the judge.

Each Brane is one yard across (0.91 meters) and thinner than half the width of a human hair. But inside it, not only does Aerospace Corp. want to embed ultrathin solar panels, but also electronics and propellant, sandwiched in between two sheets.

Being extremely thin is the crux of this type of solution. You want to deploy a whole swarm — hundreds maybe thousands — and set them loose on the hunt for junk.

At the same time, the Brane design needs to overcome numerous challenges. Though thin and flexible, this super-tech wrapping sheet needs to be almost bullet proof to withstand collisions with micro-sized debris which impact with high kinetic energy. Otherwise — you’ve guessed it — we just end up with more junk.

Another challenge is radiation. Though each Brane should operate for a short while with a hunt and destroy mindset, its electronics need to be resilient enough to maintain comm-links and microprocessor viability. Aerospace Corp. is building each Brane out of multiple segments so if one component is damaged by radiation or tiny junk, the craft is still operational.

In its final form, one Brane craft should be capable of pulling most objects weighing 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) or less into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s if this project ever leaves the drawing board in the first place. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is less about strict deadlines and more about experimenting with technology.

At the end of the day, even if the Brane is a total failure, there are good reasons to believe the technology could be helpful, at least in some places. For instance, what NASA learns from experimenting with Brane crafts could one day make satellites a lot lighter and hence cheaper to launch. Yes, more space junk! It just never stops, sorry.

Hao Jiang, graduate student at Stanford shows a basketball being gripped by the gecko-inspired adhesive.

Gecko-inspired ‘Velcro’ could help cleanup our growing space junk problem

Hao Jiang, graduate student at Stanford shows a basketball being gripped by the gecko-inspired adhesive.

Hao Jiang, graduate student at Stanford shows a basketball being gripped by the gecko-inspired adhesive.

Stanford is experimenting with a new space-gripping technology that might rid the planet’s orbit of the millions and millions of debris collectively known as ‘space junk’. Though tiny, the debris travel at phenomenal relative velocities and any impact with a satellite or even a manned space station can spell disaster. The researchers were inspired by the gecko’s sticky pads to make sticky patches on a mechanical gripper which might one day be deployed on a ‘janitor’ spacecraft.

Cleanup on aisle five

Many of the things that work on Earth don’t work in space. You can’t, for instance, use suction or chemical adhesion (glue) to collect junk because of the vacuum. You can’t use magnets either because there’s a lot of space junk that’s made of glass or aluminum, though ESA is proposing using powerful magnetic beams to dislodge from orbit satellite fitted ‘magnetorquers’. The bottom line is that space physics is tricky, something which we all wish someone had told the nimrods who supervised the unconscionable dumping of all that junk into space.

In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by the debris caused by some other French rocket which exploded a decade earlier. Yes, some people still think it’s actually a good idea to blow up stuff in the space. In 2007, for instance, China destroyed one of its old weather satellites with a missile causing 3,000 pieces of debris. Now, there are at least 170 million pieces of debris which range from 1cm to a few meters in diameter, all of which whizz past at more than 17,500 mph.

This scene from the movie Gravity is actually realistic.

This scene from the movie Gravity is actually realistic.

What makes space junk even more problematic is that there’s no viable solution in sight.  In 2012, Swiss scientists launched a pilot program called the CleanSpace One which is basically a ‘space janitor’. The function of the satellite is to track and offset debris so that their trajectory puts them on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. 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 pieces and force them down. But all of these have either failed or are in the making.

But maybe a ‘space gecko’ will pull it off after all.

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering and senior author of the paper. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Close up of the robotic gripper which is designed to grab objects in zero gravity using their gecko-inspired adhesive. Credit: Stanford.

Close up of the robotic gripper which is designed to grab objects in zero gravity using their gecko-inspired adhesive. Credit: Stanford.

A sticky problem

Stanford’s Cutkosky and colleagues think they can collect and eventually destroy space junk by gripping them with a robotic arm with a sticky touch. Gecko toes can stick to virtually any surface, not because of some glue of some sort, but rather thanks to Van der Waals forces — a. form of attraction which only works between the positive and negative charges of individual molecules that are within a few nanometers of one another.

At the center of the gecko’s Spider-Man-like clinging ability are its specialized pads, located on the reptile’s toes, comprised of various satae (bristle- or hair-like structures ) on the tip of which lie tiny structures called spatulae, each less than a micron wide. These allow attractive forces to arise between the adhesive setae and the surface.These forces are so strong that they not only allow for supporting the gecko’s weight but for even a highly robust human as well –  up to 133 kg can be sustained by the adherence forces between the gecko’s toes and a surface. This feature was extensively studied when a robot which mimicked the gecko’s satae was built and successfully tested out.

(a) toe pads to (b) lamellae to (c) top view and (d) side view of setal arrays to (e) spatulae. Right: Tim Sullivan

(a) toe pads  (b) lamellae (c) top view and (d) side view of setal arrays (e) spatulae. Right: Tim Sullivan

The gripper adhesive might not be as intricate as a gecko’s foot but it works in much the same way as tests showed at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. but also in zero-G on NASA’s reduced-gravity airplane. Like a gecko’s foot, it is only sticky if the flaps are pushed in a specific direction but making it stick only requires a light push in the right direction. This is a helpful feature for the kinds of tasks a space gripper would perform.

Some of the gripped test objects weighed as much as 800 pounds, as described in the journal Science Robotics. Essentially, the gripper can grab both flat and round objects with a mere gentle tap and release these objects with the push of a button. It’s exactly this sort of feature that might prove essential to tackling space junk which often spin or move erratically, and their surfaces can be relatively smooth and hard to grasp.

“Only when you load it in a certain direction does it suddenly adhere, and when you relax that force it comes right off,” Cutkosky told CNN Tech. “That really is the secret to it.”

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said Elliot Hawkes, MS ‘11, PhD ‘15, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-author of the paper. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

The geck-inspired robotic gripper grabbing a cube on a parabolic flight. Credit: Stanford.

The geck-inspired robotic gripper grabbing a cube on a parabolic flight. Credit: Stanford.

Now, the team hopes to finally set their gripper in a live environment, in space. But first, they need to retrofit their current prototype to match the challenges of space, like inhumanly cold temperatures. If all works as planned, the team envisions two types of grippers getting deployed in orbit. One would a be a 2,000-pound satellite that sweeps its orbit grabbing and relocating debris so they burn up in the atmosphere while another option is a tiny satellite no heavier than a few pounds that would clean debris one piece of junk at a time. The latter option would be cheaper to build and fly — a swarm of such objects could be deployed, though there’s a risk these too could become space junk if we’re not careful.

Beyond space junk, a gripping robotic arm could be useful aboard the International Space Station too. Many dangerous missions which require astronauts taking space walks could be superseded by a geck-like arm.

“The other area of interest is to have small robots that could climb around the outside of a space station or other structure without floating off because they stick using these adhesives. That would be to do inspection or maintenance,” Cutkosky said.

Derelict satellites could in future be grappled and removed from key orbits around Earth with a space tug using magnetic forces. Credit: Philippe Ogaki / ESA.

Powerful magnetic beams might one day solve our space junk problems

Scientists working with the  European Space Agency (ESA) are investigating a novel technology that might one day rid the planet of all its orbiting space junk. The idea is to use powerful magnetic beams from a chaser satellite to nudge redundant satellites out of orbit.

Derelict satellites could in future be grappled and removed from key orbits around Earth with a space tug using magnetic forces. Credit: Philippe Ogaki / ESA.

In the future, derelict satellites could be grappled and removed from key orbits around Earth with a space tug using magnetic forces. The cleaner satellite is pictured in the far right corner.  Credit: Philippe Ogaki / ESA.

We’ve only begun to send things into space in the last 60 years or so but we’ve already amassed a huge ‘pile’ of garbage around our planet. By the most recent estimates, humanity’s careless deployment of various spacecraft and satellites into the planet’s orbit has led to the formation of 170 million pieces of debris which range from 1cm to a few meters in diameter.

Despite their small size, all that junk whizzes at 17,500 mph which means the transferred kinetic energy can be huge when they impact a spacecraft or satellite. Yes, the horrific scenes from Gravity are extremely plausible and astronauts stationed at the International Space Station are well aware of this when they’re sometimes ordered to man the escape pods. The waiting is not very pleasant at all, to say the least.

Magnets to the rescue

So what are our solutions? For now, there really isn’t one. In 2012, Swiss scientists launched a pilot program called the CleanSpace One which is basically a ‘space janitor’. The function of the satellite is to track and offset debris so that their trajectory puts them on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. 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 pieces and force them down. The bottom line though is that all of these have either failed or are in the making.

Emilien Fabacher from the University of Toulouse in France is working on what looks like the most promising ‘space janitor’ so far.

“So the idea I’m investigating is to apply magnetic forces either to attract or repel the target satellite, to shift its orbit or deorbit it entirely,” Fabacher said in a statement. 

“With a satellite you want to deorbit, it’s much better if you can stay at a safe distance, without needing to come into direct contact and risking damage to both chaser and target satellite.”

This isn’t a crack on car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

This isn’t a crack on a car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” ESA wrote. Credit: ESA.

The power to attract or repel

To grip derelict satellites, the chaser would generate a strong magnetic field from superconducting wires cooled to cryogenic temperatures. The magnetic field would then target the satellites’ ‘magnetorquers’, which are reliable electromagnets already fitted to adjust orientation using Earth’s magnetic field without needing any special equipment.

Not only would a magnetic gripper safely remove junk from space, it would also serve a more constructive purpose. The same space tug could be used to root several satellites in place by keeping them in formation above Earth. Such satellite swarms are being considered for future astronomy or Earth-observing missions because they can act as a single giant telescope as long as they’re stable. Many ground-based radio telescopes around the world have joined hands, for instance, to essentially form a telescope the size of planet Earth with the intended purpose of peering into a black hole’s event horizon. 

“This kind of contactless magnetic influence would work from about 10–15 m out, offering positioning precision within10 cm with attitude precision 1–2º,” commented Finn Ankersen, an ESA expert in rendezvous and docking, formation flight.

Darwin's six telescopes -- a proposed concept of various telescopes and communication satellites aligned in formation to study alien planets. Credit: ESA 2002; Illustration by Medialab.

Darwin’s six telescopes — a proposed concept of various telescopes and communication satellites aligned in formation to study alien planets. Credit: ESA 2002; Illustration by Medialab.

For now, Fabacher and colleagues are still crunching the numbers to see how all of this might work in a practical setting. Fabacher has already combined a rendezvous simulator with magnetic interaction models for his PhD thesis. “The first surprise was that it was indeed possible, theoretically – initially we couldn’t be sure, but it turns out that the physics works fine,” he said.

This isn't a crack on car's windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS' Cupola -- the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by "possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across," writes the ESA.

We’re launching a horde of tiny satellites, and that might eventually make space flight unusable

Earlier this year, India made headlines after it launched a record-breaking 104 satellites into the planet’s orbit. Only three actually look like ‘real’ satellites, while the other 101 are called ‘nanosatellites’ because they don’t weigh more than five or six kilograms. These can serve a variety of functions, from communications to simple science experiments. Overall, though tiny when compared with more expensive satellites, these instruments help science. At the same time, however, they’re crowding the planet’s orbit. Already, some routes are too dangerous to launch rockets because the risk of colliding with some space junk is just too big to ignore. In time, the problem will only get worse.

Space is infinite, but Earth’s orbit isn’t

This growing problem was the main attraction of the recent European Conference on Space Debris where thousands of scientists, journalists, and policymakers gathered to hear about the latest in ‘space junk’.

It didn’t take too long since Sputnik first opened its comm link in 1957 for Earth’s orbit to get dangerously crowded. We’ve launched some 7,000 spacecraft in space since then, but only a tiny fraction of these objects are actually usable like weather and communication satellites or the International Space Station. Actually, there’s no one more concerned about space junk than the handful of men and women astronauts stationed there. Speaking through an internet link, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet told the conference audience he and colleagues routinely man their escape pods when a red alert signals a possible collision with a piece of space junk.

“This happened four times,” Pesquet said. “In my own interests, let me wish you a successful conference.”

This isn't a crack on car's windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS' Cupola -- the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by "possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across," writes the ESA.

This isn’t a crack on car’s windshield, but 7-mm chip in diameter in one of the windows of the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures. It was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” writes the ESA.

How did we get here?

According to NASA, there are millions of pieces of debris or ‘space junk’ orbiting Earth. At the conference, the ESA shared its latest figures according to which there are around 5,000 objects larger than 1 meter in orbit, 20,000 larger than 10cm, and 750,000 larger than 1cm. That’s trackable debris since most of the junk isn’t tracked. These tiny space junk that can be anything from some shrapnel to a screw, to paint flake, and are incredibly dangerous. Despite their small size, all that junk whizzes at 17,500 mph which means the transferred kinetic energy can be huge when they impact a spacecraft or satellite. You might remember a scene from the movie Gravity where the International Space Station is torn apart by space junk. ESA Director General Jan Woerner said that despite its many shortcomings, the movie does a pretty good job at illustrating the potential damage space debris can cause.

It’s hard to pin the blame on someone specific. Basically, every government screwed up at least on one occasion. In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by the debris caused by some other French rocket which exploded a decade earlier. Yes, some people still think it’s actually a good idea to blow up stuff in the space. In 2007, for instance, China destroyed one of its old weather satellites with a missile causing 3,000 pieces of debris.

 The Sentinel-1A radar imaging satellite was struck on one of its solar panels last August by a piece of space debris. The satellite is still operational but the event gave everyone a big scare. It's been used as an example at ESA's recent conference on space junk. Credit: ESA.

The Sentinel-1A radar imaging satellite was struck on one of its solar panels last August by a piece of space debris. The satellite is still operational but the event gave everyone a big scare. It’s been used as an example at ESA’s recent conference on space junk. Credit: ESA.

Space junk leads to more space junk. Back in the 1970s, a NASA scientist called  Donald Kessler came up with a theory called the “Kessler syndrome” which basically posits collisions in Earth’s orbit set off a chain reaction of space junk begetting more space junk until, eventually, there’s not enough room to launch a needle safely.

At the conference, one ESA official confessed a particularly crowded region is already unusable. As satellites become smaller, more useful, and cheaper, the Kessler syndrome is turning more and more into a worrisome reality. Hugh Lewis, an aerospace researcher with the University of Southampton, simulated what would happen if we launched 270 nano-satellites each year for 50 years and found the risk of space junk collision doubled.

There is no viable solution for space junk

In 2012, Swiss scientists launched a pilot program called the CleanSpace One which is basically a ‘space janitor’. The function of the satellite is to track and offset debris so that their trajectory puts them on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. 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 pieces and force them down.

The bottom line, however, is that there is no current viable solution to space junk. No yet, anyway. The only best thing everyone can do right now is to not make the problem worse.

 

kevlar

Ballistic test on Kevlar shows what could happen to the ISS from space debris impacts

We’ve mentioned on numerous occasions the growing problem of space debris and voiced our concerns that, if left unchecked, the thousands of metal junk fragments currently out there could seriously affect space missions and even threaten lives. In Earth’s orbit, even a tiny metal fragment could potentially wreak havoc upon impact with a spacecraft or satellite because of the extremely high kinetic energies involved. The International Space Station regularly comes in contact with such fragments. Sometimes, astronauts aboard need to perform a space walk in order to repair or replace a damaged solar cell or some other device. A ballistic test that demonstrates the kind of fire power the ISS is thrown against each day was recently released by the ESA.

Beware of space junk

kevlar

This burned and torn through piece of kevlar shiled is the result of the test which used the Fraunhofer Institute’s Extra Large Light Gas Gun – a huge air cannon, basically – to shoot a 7.5mm (0.3in) aluminium bullet. The kevlar shield is the same as the one used to layer the manned modules of the International Space Station and protect the crew, while the firing bullet mimics a metal junk fragment traveling at 7 kilometers per second or 15,600 mph.

[RELATED] The only person in the world ever to be hit by space junk

I know, this looks very scary but believe it or not, the Kevlar did its job well since the aluminium casing it shielded remained intact. Actually, apart from a small dent and the scorching remains, the casing remained otherwise unharmed. The test proves that Kevlar is truly one tough mother, but it also gives to show that space debris is no funny business. Last year, the International Space Station went on full alert and the astronauts stationed there were forced to reach for their escape pods until further notice after mission control spotted a risky space debris trajectory that could have made impact with the space station. Luckily, the impact was averted.

scorched_aluminium

Those of you who’ve watched the movie Gravity must be thinking if the scene where the space debris shooting the ISS are accurate. Despite the movie’s numerous short comings in terms of scientific accuracy, the very frightening scenes where the space debris collide with the station causing a monstrous chain of events are very much accurate.

What can the world do about space debris? Well, there are some ideas thrown about, ranging from a janitor satellite to a full blown giant ground laser that zaps the debris. If these work it remains to be seen, but for now the best thing the world’s space agencies and governments can do is to avoid creating more debris. In 1997, China intentionally blew up one of its satellites to demonstrate a weapon project. As a result more than 3,000 pieces of debris were scattered in orbit. Seriously, people should stop doing stupid stuff like this!

The results of the shielding test can be read in depth at ESA.

(c) ESA

ESA announces asteroid set for spaceship crash

The European Space Agency just announced the asteroid they chose for an upcoming controlled crash landing of one of their spacecraft. The objective? Well, more or less, they just want to see what happens.

(c) ESA

(c) ESA

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission will intercept the asteroid, called Didymos, in 2022, when the asteroid gets within 11 million kilometers of Earth. The announcement couldn’t came at a better timing, right in the wake of a giant asteroid that almost collided with Earth and right after a fireball blazed over Russia causing havoc.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned with the risks associated with a potential cosmic clashes between our planet and foreign cosmic bodies. There are thousands of asteroids currently tracked by NASA and other space agencies in the world, and we currently possess the technology to avert a major threat in case such an event might surface, however recent events have shown that we aren’t entirely prepared.

The mission has been planned for a few years now, and will consist of two spacecrafts. One will crash in one of the two Didymos rocks at 14,000 MPH – it’s actually an asteroid pair – while the other spacecraft will standby an record everything that happens.

The goal is to characterize how an object’s orbital mechanics would change if it’s disturbed by an impactor. Since the energy released in such an impact is estimated to be similar to that released during a satellite impact with a piece of space debris, it will aid scientists better their understanding and aid in the development of solutions that might protect spacecraft. It also has implications for the future deflection of asteroids that might threaten Earth.

Didymos itself poses absolutely no threat to Earth, since it’s closest flyby, and at the same time point of impact with the ESA spacecraft, will be within 11 million kilometers of Earth. One of the binary asteroid is roughly a half mile across and the other is about 500 feet across. Read more about AIDA.

Thousands of pieces of "space junk" orbit our planet. (c) ESA

CO2 emissions might lead to more space junk hazard

Ever increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere are not only hazardous to life on the planet’s surface, but also to human operations in space. A new study has found that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere upper levels could push made-made objects orbiting the planet further away from their trajectories, resulting in a faster accumulation of space junk and an increase risk of collusion with valuable satellites.

Thousands of pieces of "space junk" orbit our planet. (c) ESA

Thousands of pieces of “space junk” orbit our planet. (c) ESA

Carbon dioxide warms the lower atmosphere of Earth, however it works as a coolant at higher altitudes, where it’s not dense enough to recapture the heat that it emits. Thus, in its upper most layers the same build-up causes a cooling effect. So, the thermosphere, the upper-most layer of the atmosphere, begins to contract and in the process reduces the drag effect on satellites, the International Space Station, as well as any other object orbiting this region.

“The observed CO2 increase is expected to gradually result in a cooler, more contracted upper atmosphere and a consequent reduction in the atmospheric drag experienced by satellites,” said a statement from the Naval Research Laboratory, which took part in the study.

This translates in a longer life span for space junk, as more such objects will stay farther out for longer instead of burning up in the lower layers of the atmosphere, closer to Earth. Space debris already consist a very serious issue for operations in space, as hundreds of thousands of space junk debris travel at huge speeds in sub-orbital space, posing a high risk to satellites and manned missions at the International Space Station. A number of solutions have been proposed in order to deal with the issue, however deployment is still far away from becoming reality.

“Consequently, space junk will accumulate at a faster rate and we will see more collisions between space objects as a result,” the report stated. “We will also see many more ‘near-misses’ and these have an important effect on spacecraft operators.”

The scientists estimate that the concentration of carbon near 100 km altitude is increasing at a rate of 23.5 ± 6.3 parts per million per decade – about 10 ppm/decade faster than predicted by upper atmospheric model simulations. On the bright side, the scientists involved in the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE), a scientific satellite mission funded primarily by the Canadian Space Agency, claim that the thermosphere contraction means that satellites won’t have to commence re-orbiting operations so often, saving fuel in the process.

Findings were reported in the journal Nature Geoscience.

international space station

ISS changes orbit to dodge space debris collision

international space station

The Russian space program’s Mission Control Center recently announced that the International Space Station will adjust its orbit to prevent a possible collision with a debris cloud from a Japanese satellite.

The dodge is provisionally planned for 10.22am BST (9.22 GMT, 00.01 PST), time at which the Russian Zvevda module will fire its booster rockets and move the station to a different orbit. Last week, the station dodged two other collision incidents  when a piece of an old Russian Cosmos satellite went past last Thursday, followed by part of an Indian rocket the following day. Neither of the two presented a significant risk to warrant a course of action, however the likelihood of the Japanese satellite debris cloud colliding with the ISS exceeds one in 10,000. That might sound unlikely, however a possibility remains.

In March, a space junk read alert collision forced the astronauts to retreat to their escape pods as a means of precaution, but fortunately nothing happened. Previous such alerts, of various danger degrees, have been signaled along the years. NASA estimates that there are more than 21,000 fragments bigger than 10cm (3.9 inches) circling around our planet, posing problems for further space launches and re-entries.

Space junk is indeed a severe issue, one that gets only worse as space debris crash into one another forming more, tinier junk. Many solutions have been proposed, from the Swiss “Space Janitor”, to a laser canon. A rubbish-collector, the NanoSail-D, a teeny satellite which will latch onto debris and then float it in on a solar sail to burn up in the atmosphere, is currently in testing.

Graph showing space debris inflation from the past few decades. In 2007, China destroyed one of its satellites with a missile creating 3,000 trackable objects and 150,000 debris particles. In 2009 a Russian and American satellite collided resulting in tonnes of debris. (c) NASA

ISS crew took to their escape pods this weekend after space debris collision alert

This Friday, ground mission control ordered the current stationed astronaut crew at the International Space Station to head for the escape capsules as a safety precaution in light of a threatening space junk flyby. This is the third time in 12 years an ISS crew had to take this extreme measure.

Graph showing space debris inflation from the past few decades. In  2007, China destroyed one of its satellites with a missile creating 3,000 trackable objects and 150,000 debris particles. In 2009 a Russian and American satellite collided resulting in tonnes of debris. (c) NASA

Graph showing space debris inflation from the past few decades. In 2007, China destroyed one of its satellites with a missile creating 3,000 trackable objects and 150,000 debris particles. In 2009 a Russian and American satellite collided resulting in tonnes of debris. (c) NASA

The space debris in question was barely detected on Friday, offering little advance warning such that the station might be moved, as such the crew, three Russians, two Americans and one Dutch astronaut, were advised to man the two Soyuz escape capsules in case the station was hit. According to NASA, however, the space junk’s trajectory was well beyond that of the space station, posing little threat, but made for an excellent exercise opportunity. Russia’s space agency said the debris had passed the station at a distance of 23km (14 miles) and on Saturday 0238 GMT, the astronauts were given the green light to return to the main space station modules.

“Everything went by the book and as expected, the small piece of cosmos satellite debris passed the international space station without incident.”

“The cosmonauts have returned to performing their previously assigned work,” an official told Interfax news agency.

A similar incident occurred just last June, however the situation was a lot more stressful, compared to the present one, which simply made for a convenient safety exercise. Back then, a piece of space debris flew by the ISS at a mere 335m distance – a red alert was issued then.

NASA currently keeps track of around 22,000 space objects orbiting Earth, but there are some million other space debris which are either too small to track or have yet to be tracked by the agency. These tiny space objects travel at a few kilometers per second, velocities ten times higher than that of bullet, and if eventually one such object were to hit the ISS, it might cause severe damage to the station itself or its instruments. An international standard for handling space junk is currently being discussed to keep the current rate of increase in debris to a minimum, while clean-up solutions, like a giant laser or space janitor satellite, are discussed for immediate deployment.

Clean Space One

“Space Janitor” satellite announced to clean-up space debris

There are currently an estimated 19,000 individual space debris swirling around Earth’s orbit at 17,000 miles/hour, posing great threat to current active satellites, telescopes, future launches in orbit, the International Space Station and even astronauts out on space walks. It’s very clear that something must be done, before the Earth gets one of its own Saturn-like rings, but made of junk.

Swiss engineers have recently initialized a project which might offer a valid solution to this dire issue. Namely, the Swiss Space Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have announced the CleanSpace One, or the “janitor satellite” as it’s also been dubbed – a trash retrieving satellite.

Clean Space One

Since 1958, when the first satellite, the Russian Sputnik, was launched into orbit, thousands of space junk debris have been amassed as rocket modules were jettisoned during launches or satellites bits broke off. These numbers are only set to increase dramatically, not just due to future launches, but rather as a result of collisions between space junk that render even more bits. In 2009 a $55 million American satellite collided with an inactive Russian Satellite, destroying it and creating 2,000 smaller pieces of debris in the process. A space debris the size of coin, considering the extreme velocity with which it orbits, is enough to blow to smithereens any satellite and potentially damage the ISS beyond recovery.

“Something has to be done about this problem. Collisions between satellite and debris are bound to happen,” said Volker Gass, director of the Swiss Space Center.  “There’s going to be an avalanche effect, and more satellites are going to be destroyed.”

NASA is currently tracking every piece of space debris, a process which costs the agency millions each year, but of critical importance if launches may be made safely. Actually, NASA had a plan of its own (might still be, haven’t heard anything about it for some time) for dealing with the space junk issue, namely a laser cannon designed to shoot off debris and place them out of orbit for a Earth entry, where they would be subsequentely destroyed by the atmosphere.

The Swiss project seems a bit more practical. It involves the development of a family of satellites specialized in cleaning up debris, retrieving the floating obstacles in a safe and controlled manner. The “janitor satellite” would adjust its trajectory to meet-up with its targeted debris, one of the many challenges engineers faced (remember, we’re talking about 17,000 mph velocities) grip it and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The first models are set for kamikaze missions, however the  CleanSpace One adventure will not be a one-shot deal.

“We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites,” explained Gass in a statement. “Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they’re sending into space. We want to be the pioneers in this area.”

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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?

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The only person in the world ever to get hit by space junk

In January, 1997 Lottie Williams was strolling through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her friends around 3:30 AM, when a dashing fireball appeared over the sky, much to the promenaders’ admiration. Moments later, Williams was hit in the shoulder by a small piece of fabric-like metal that weighed as much as an empty soda can. No serious injury occurred, but eventually it was proven that the women was actually hit by a piece of space debris.

First curious, but then fearful, she took the piece of space junk, as such debris from outer space are commonly referred, at her local library, before being directed to an astronomy club, Tulsa University and eventually the CORD (the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies), the last of which confirmed that it indeed came from outer space. Analysis confirming the piece of blackened, woven material to be part of the fuel tank of a Delta II rocket that had launched a U.S. Air Force satellite in 1996.

RELATED: Space junk didn’t hit the International Space Station – red alert canceled

In the wake of the scheduled retirement of a defunct NASA satellite, set to plunge into the Earth this Friday, one can only ask what would happened if a person might get hit by it. NASA says there’s a 1-in-3,200 chance that someone could get hurt. NASA is currently considering the development of a high power laser capable of shooting down space debris from orbit, an ever increasingly expensive, and especially dangerous, issue for the agency.

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The International Space Station as photographed by an STS-133 crew member on space shuttle Discovery. (c) NASA

Space junk didn’t hit the International Space Station – red alert canceled

The International Space Station as photographed by an STS-133 crew member on space shuttle Discovery. (c) NASA

The International Space Station as photographed by an STS-133 crew member on space shuttle Discovery. (c) NASA

Remarkably, a growing issue NASA scientists face everyday is space junk – tiny bits of scrap, bolts, rocket modules from launches and so on. All of them along the years have amassed to a point where it is now very dangerous for satellites, orbiting spacecrafts and especially the International Space Station to freely orbit Earth.

It’s enough to keep in mind that most space debris travel at 18,000 mph, so even a bolt sized junk if it hits the space station at relative speed would be enough to blow it to smithereens. Apparently, such a case wasn’t too far from reality earlier today, when NASA issued a red alert for the ISS as a piece of debris from the Chinese FENGYUN 1C satellite destroyed in an anti-satellite missile test by China in 2007 came critically close.

Approaching the space station from the front, NASA officials said the satellite debris flew within about 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) during its closest approach to the space station at 4:21 p.m. EDT (2021 GMT). For the three astronauts on board, American Catherine (Caty) Coleman, Italian Paulo Nespoli, and Russian Commander Dmitry Kondratyev, the situation was tensed, as they were advised to take shelter in “the Russian lifeboat”, the Soyuz capsule that’s attached to the station that could fly them back to Earth. Usually the alert is dropped as the debris gets close enough for NASA to project an exact path, and determines it’s going to miss. The last time debris got close enough to force an evacuation was in 2009.

“Tracking data now indicates that a piece of orbital debris being monitored by Mission Control Houston will not pass close enough to the International Space Station to warrant the Expedition 27 crew members taking safe haven within their Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an afternoon status update.

NASA has a very elaborate space junk tracking system, which predicts whether the debris will fly within a preset “pizza-box”-shaped safety perimeter of the ISS – about 15 miles (25 km) around the space station and about a half-mile (0.75 km) above and below the orbiting lab. Even so, however, space junk is getting ever thicker, and consequently situations like these will happen more often.

As of July 2009, more than 19,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm were known to be circling the Earth, according to NASA researchers who track it. Another 500,000 pieces are between 1 cm and 10 cm. The tiniest pieces number in the millions. One of the best solutions to this demanding space issue is the development of a huge space junk laser which would pull debris off course into the atmosphere, but it could take years and years for it to actually get built.