Orbital clutter reaching crisis point

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2011

A grim prognosis from Marshall Kaplan, orbital debris expert at John Hopkins University:

“The proliferation is irreversible. Any cleanup would be too expensive. Given this insight, it is unlikely spacefaring nations are going to do anything significant about cleaning up space,” Kaplan said. “The fact is that we really can’t do anything. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the technology. We don’t have the cooperation. Nobody wants to pay for it. Space debris cleanup is a ‘growth industry,’ but there are no customers. In addition, it is politically untenable.”

[…]

“There is a good chance that we may have to eventually abandon all active satellites in currently used orbits,” Kaplan said. “One possible scenario for the future is that we may phase out this generation of spacecraft while replacing them with a brand-new infrastructure of low-orbiting constellations of small satellites, each of which partially contributes to collecting desired data or making communications links.”

These constellations could be placed below 370 miles (600 km), thus avoiding the debris issue.

“Such a new infrastructure could be developed over the next 20, 30 or 40 years,” Kaplan said. “We should have plenty of time to make the transition, so let’s use it wisely. We all caused this problem … there is no doubt about that. And, nobody will claim somebody else did it.”

Nobody will claim someone else did it? Charming political naivete from Mister Kaplan, there; there’ll be plenty of finger-pointing once the rate of failed launches due to debris collisions increases significantly. I’m guessing China will be on the receiving end of most of it, too.

But there’s an old saying in the English county of Yorkshire: “where there’s muck, there’s brass”. If I was looking for a way to monetise a manned orbital station, making orbital junk-wrangling a big part of the commercial offer would be my first angle; maybe no one is willing to pay yet, but demonstrate an ability to save pricey sats from destruction and folk might think differently.

[ If you’re reading this, Elon Musk, my offer to act as a low-cost ideas-geek in your organisation still stands. 🙂 ]


Cleaning up in orbit: ways to remove proliferating orbital crud

Paul Raven @ 13-03-2009

map of orbiital debris around Earth - courtesy NASASpace isn’t empty at all – it’s full of crap, much of it (unsurprisingly) put there by us. And much like the rubbish we leave elsewhere, orbital junk is becoming a serious problem:

The volume of man-made space debris has grown so large that scientists say garbage now poses a bigger safety threat to the U.S. space shuttle than an accident on liftoff or landing. The International Space Station occasionally fires thrusters to dodge junk.

So, what can you do? There are plenty of ideas, many of which sound like they were ganked straight from old sf dime novels:

Among the suggestions: launching big nets and large magnets to snag refuse, or using high-energy lasers to atomize debris. None of these ideas is feasible. Magnets would be useless because spacecraft contain almost no iron. Nets are almost uncontrollable. Blasting debris, meanwhile, would simply create smaller remains that would be tougher to track and produce a vast haze of shrapnel, experts say.

In short – the jury’s still out, and the problem still needs fixing. If this was a Ben Bova story, some plucky risk-taking entrepreneur would step in and make his fortune in short order…

… from which we can only conclude that life isn’t a Ben Bova story (at least, not yet). [via SlashDot; image coutesy NASA]