Today on T3rf De we visit space again. We will talk about a problem that space engineers and scientists face whenever they try to send something to space, and we will talk about a solution that many others are proposing. The problem is space junk and the solution is a janitor.
Decades since humans sent the first object to orbit Earth, Sputnik, we sent many satellites and manned-missions in orbit; most notably, the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope. As a result, Earth’s orbit is filled with tens of millions of space junk. Trash like fuel tanks, lost tools and remnants of older satellites.
These orbiting objects can be hazardous because of their growing numbers. It will be harder for us to avoid them in future missions and satellites. They orbit around earth at speeds higher than 28,000 km/h which means a collision with any of these objects can be very devastating; as seen in the recent, Hollywood movie, Gravity. A space object as large as a coin flying at such high speeds can blow any satellite into many fragments. There are an estimated 22,000 objects of space debris that are big enough to be tracked from down here. Moreover, it is estimated that there are 370,000 pieces of junk floating around Earth.
The implications of neglecting this growing danger are great. Practically, it will be harder for spacecrafts to penetrate this junk shield and leave Earth. “We’ve lost control of the environment” said Donald Kessler, a retired senior NASA scientist. In 2009, an inactive Russian satellite collided with an operational American satellite at a speed of 42,120km/h. The collision resulted in around 2000 pieces of space debris; complicating our problem further.
Currently, most, if not all, functioning satellites have to maneuver around one another and around space junk. To do that, a lot of calculation and processing power is required; costing a lot of money and manpower. Additionally, to do these maneuvers, fuel is required to push the satellite one way or another. Needless to say, fuel is a limited resource in space. The whole process is quite challenging.
Clearly, ignoring this problem will not make it disappear. On the contrary, it will only get more complicated the more we ignore it.
Okay, what is the solution? Many agencies are developing technologies to eradicate and get rid of space junk. For example, Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne, EPFL, is currently designing a “Space Janitor”. One of many similar projects, CleanSpace One project is the first installment of satellites that aim to clean up Earth’s orbit.
CleanSpace One satellite is a 10x10x10cm cube with specially-made tentacle-like arms. The design is around 30kg in weight. Once in space, it will rendezvous with the target satellite and grab it with its arms. Then they will head back to Earth and both satellites will burn upon reentry to the atmosphere. CleanSpace One’s is by no means an easy engineering feat; the target satellite will be around 630-750km high and 28,000km/h fast. This kamikaze mission seems ineffectual at first, but it is planned for future models not be a one shot deal. The 10 million Swiss Franc satellite is planned to be launched in 2018. It is planned to grab one of the first two Swiss satellites ever launched to space; SwissCube or TIsat.
Other agencies are trying to develop satellites that use different techniques to manage space debris. These agencies include NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Each technique targets a different size of space debris.
Scientists and engineers are working hard to eliminate the looming problem. However, without political cooperation between different countries, progress will be slow. Many countries that have objects orbiting Earth refuse to share information about their satellites; even those that are dying or about to die. There is no international regulatory system that obliges these countries to get rid of their own space junk.
Long story short, we have to get rid of the mess we have created in order for future generations to enjoy the technological advancements of our generation. For more articles like this please follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also, don’t forget to sign up to our mailing list on your right hand side.