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To clean up space debris and simultaneously advance exploration, a research branch of the US government is looking to re-purpose satellite parts in orbit for a mission to Mars. A computer generated image of the Sling-Sat, a satellite design which uses a grapple to capture space debris  (image via Jonathan Missel/Texas A&M)


Think your closet is a disaster zone? Imagine all that clutter whizzing through space at dizzying speeds. There are approximately 100 million pieces of debris tracked by space agencies worldwide. The debris comes from pieces of rockets and satellites which break after launching from the earth’s atmosphere. Many pieces are traveling at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour or more, posing a serious threat to the safety and efficacy of future launches.


The trash comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it is nearly the size of a football, some the size of your thumb, and many more pieces so small they are undetectable. In fact, flecks of paint traveling at thousands of miles per hour are often responsible for damage to rocket windows.


What to do about all this junk? Space exploration agencies around the world have been working on this problem for years. Most recently, Japan designed a tether to be released from a cargo ship launched in December. With the International Space Station as its destination, the cargo ship would unfurl a tether, made of lightweight aluminum, which would attract and help slow debris in its path, causing the junk to fall to a lower earth orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the cargo ship failed to release the tether properly, and the mission was declared a failure. Now, the cleanup satellite is even more space junk to clean up.


Other designs are in the works, however. The European Space Agency came up with a design to pull junk into a giant net in a polar orbit, between 500 and 620 miles above Earth’s surface. Researchers at Texas A&M have designed a satellite which would capture orbiting material with a grapple. The swinging motion of the grapple arms would hurl the captured material towards Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up.


The grapple system would then be propelled forward by this momentum towards the next piece of detected debris. And multiple designs at both public and private institutions involve using electromagnetic fields to pull small pieces of debris out of orbit in a sort of netting system.


In theory, many of these designs work well. Making them a reality, whatever the design, involves a lot of funding. In order to scour space of junk, there will likely need to be an international collaboration with multiple designs, because the current mess is too big for just one program to handle.


Space garbage/junk is a quite an interest of mine, so I like to follow the latest news. The junk even sparked a whole animated series called Planetes several years ago. Well worth a watch.


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