In the short time that we’ve been launching stuff into orbit around our little blue marble we’ve made quite a mess of things up there. Sure it’s not that much of problem currently thanks to NASA tracking the most dangerous parts of it but the fact is that as time goes on the problem isn’t going to get better on its own. Whilst most space junk that’s close to earth or beyond geosynchronous will eventually burn up or leave our orbit for good the space in between there is littered with junk that will stay around from a couple decades to even a few centuries. It’s not exactly an easy problem to solve either as orbital mechanics aren’t exactly energy efficient, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
There are two factors that make cleaning up space junk difficult: the orbital speeds involved and the fact that most space junk doesn’t share an orbit. The first one is the reason that space junk is such a big problem in the first place. You see to stay in orbit you need to be travelling at some 26,000KM/h (Mach 26ish) and when you hit that speed small things start to become rather dangerous. The ESA has some good pictures of what hypervelocity impacts look like and should such an impact happen on a craft it’s usually the end of it, and the beginning of yet another debris field.
The orbits also pose a problem as any efficient space junk collector will need to change orbits often in order to be able to capture as much space junk as possible. Doing so requires either a lot of energy or an incredibly efficient engine (thus, lots of time) and there’s really nothing that solves either of these problems well when it comes to a space junk collector. The Swiss Space Centre still wants to have a crack at it though with their concept craft CleanSpace One:
The cleanup satellite has three major challenges to overcome, each of which will necessitate the development of new technology that could, in turn, be used down the road in other applications.
After its launch, the cleanup satellite will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target’s orbital plane. To do this, it could use a new kind of ultra-compact motor designed for space applications that is being developed in EPFL laboratories. When it gets within range of its target, which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it – a mission that’s extremely dicey at these high speeds, particularly if the satellite is rotating. To accomplish the task, scientists are planning to develop a gripping mechanism inspired from a plant or animal example. Finally, once it’s coupled with the satellite, CleanSpace One will “de-orbit” the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.
In essence CleanSpace One is a simple capture and de-orbit craft, designed to be disposable. They’re looking to create a whole family of them that can cater to any kind of satellite and presumably looking to launch several at once in order to keep the cost down. Whilst such a craft would eliminate some space junk it doesn’t address the larger problem of those satellites not being managed properly in the first place, which I think is the core of the problem.
You see most of the junk satellites are still there because they weren’t designed with any kind of de-orbiting mechanism in them. The reasoning behind this is simple, such systems add cost to already expensive satellites and are therefore usually overlooked. There’s also a lot more maintenance and regulation required for such things as well like Hydrazine which is commonly used in such systems. It’d be far more cost effective to regulate that all new satellites have to have something like NanoSail-D attached to it as they’re relatively cheap and can de-orbit a satellite without the added hassles of current de-orbit systems.
I still commend the Swiss for being forward thinking with this issue however and realistically this is logical first step towards fixing the space debris problem. With experience they might be able to find clever ways to structure orbits for debris capture or devise better propulsion systems that will make more efficient collection possible. Developments in this area will also have flow on effects for other space programs as well as many of the technologies developed for something this will have dual uses elsewhere. Hopefully this will trigger other countries to start thinking about their own kind of space debris management system and eventually lead to an end to the mess that we created up there.