Cleaning up in orbit: ways to remove proliferating orbital crud

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]

One thought on “Cleaning up in orbit: ways to remove proliferating orbital crud”

  1. Yes, this is a serious problem. I don’t have a direct clean-up solution to offer, but there is reason for optimism even without any clean-up technology. You see, if we can significantly reduce our production of NEW space junk, then the amount of existing junk in orbit (and especially low orbit) will gradually decrease due to drag against the (exceedingly thin) gas out there, leading to re-entry of this junk into our atmosphere. So with enough time, the junk will eventually all burn up and/or settle back to Earth. I don’t have the numbers on me, but based on satellite lifetimes, I’m guessing we could achieve a very substantial level of natural clean-up in 2-5 decades if we simply stopped adding new junk. Also, given that powerful people are now much more concerned about this problem than ever before, there is reason to expect we will take steps to produce much less new junk in the coming years & decades.

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