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.
6 months ago I wrote about SpaceX’s historic flight of their Falcon 9 rocket and how much it meant to us space romantics. Their tentative schedule had me all aflutter with the possibility of seeing not one, but two more flights of their flagship rocket within this year. It was looking entirely possible too as just on a month later they were already building the next rocket and there was even a hint that I might get to see it take off on my trip through America. Whilst I may not have gotten to see the launch for myself SpaceX is not one to disappoint with them launching their second Falcon 9 rocket earlier this morning carrying a fully fledged version of their crew and cargo capsule, the Dragon.
The launch itself didn’t go by without a hitch though with some bad telemetry data causing the initial launch to be scrubbed and rescheduled for about an hour later. However once they were past that minor hurdle they were able to continue with launch preparations and launch without incident. This is testament to their ability to rapidly troubleshoot and resolve problems that would likely cost anyone else at least a day to recover from. Elon Musk is definitely onto something when he thought about running a launcher company as a startup, rather than a traditional organisation.
The mission profile was a relatively simple one although it represents a giant leap forward in capability for SpaceX. The previous launch of the Falcon 9 carried with it a Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit, basically just a shell of a full Dragon capsule designed to be little more than a weight on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. That capsule lacked the ability to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 it was attached to and was also designed to burn up on re-entry. The payload for this mission however was a fully functional Dragon capsule with the full suite of avionics, support systems and the ability to return to earth from orbit. It was also carrying a small fleet of government owned CubeSats that were launched shortly after they achieved orbit. Approximately 3 hours after the Falcon 9’s launch the Dragon capsule returned safely to earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
I, along with every other space nut out there, are incredibly excited about what this means for the future of space. Not only has SpaceX managed to successfully launch a brand new rocket twice in 6 months they’ve done so with an almost flawless record. The pace at which they’re progressing is really quite astonishing considering how small they are compared to those who’ve achieved the same goals previously. The team that Elon Musk has assembled really deserves all the credit that they get and I now I wait with baited breath at their next launch as that will be the first private spacecraft ever to visit the International Space Station.
It’s really quite exciting to see progress like this in an area that was once considered only accessible by the world’s superpower governments. Whilst we’re still a long, long way from such technology becoming an everyday part of our lives like commercial air travel has the progress that SpaceX has made shows that the current cost to orbit can and will come down over time. This also gives NASA the opportunity to stop focusing on the more rudimentary aspects of flight that SpaceX is now capable of handling, leaving them to return to what they were once known best for: pushing the envelope of what the human race is capable of in space. So whilst we won’t be seeing another Falcon 9 launch this year as I had hoped all those months ago this perfect flight of the first fully functional Dragon capsule signals that the future of space travel for us humans is not just bright, it’s positively blinding.
It’s not everyday that you get a company coming forward and firmly stating that they are going to provide orbital capabilities to anyone who has the money. Space Adventures is the only company thus far that has put a paying private space tourists into orbital space, and they are technically just a travel agent. Just recently though we’ve had another company lay its goals on the table, and boy are they shooting high:
The previously top secret reusable reentry vehicle for the Soviet “Almaz” manned military space station will form the backbone of a major new U.S./Russian commercial venture to carry paying research crews on one week missions into Earth orbit by 2013.
The reusable reentry vehicle (RRV) venture is being announced today at MAKS, the annual Moscow Air Show at Ramenskoye air base.
The project is led by Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company that has teamed with the Almaz RRV spacecraft manufacturer and other Russian and U.S. companies. EA is led by Art Dula founder and CEO of the venture.
I’d heard about the vehicle they’re planning to use before, mostly because it is to date the only known space vehicle that was weaponized. The Outer Space Treaty restricts the use of most weapons in space however conventional weapons, such as the aircraft gun on the Almaz station Salyut 3, are still allowed. For the most part this would restrict anything in earth orbit to blowing up other stuff in orbit which is not the most useful thing you can do. In essence you would be creating a debris field that you would then have to work around and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to take out a satellite with ground based lasers or missiles. Other than that the capsule is interesting because of its design.
Russia as a space nation is known for producing reliable vehicles that can only ever be used once. Whilst on the surface this may seem wasteful it does help to keep costs down as reusable architecture, like the Shuttle, requires a lot more work to ensure the structures are reusable. Almaz is different as on the surface it looks like a typical Apollo capsule whilst being reusable, something which a budding space company would require in order to keep costs down. Excalibur Almaz has already bought two complete hulls and the interesting part is that Russia is quite capable of making more of them. This is in stark contrast to other capsules of its time period like Apollo or even Skylab, as all the tooling and manufacturing lines are gone.
There is just one slight detail that’s bothering me about the whole proposal; they are lacking a launch system. Whilst there are many companies that would be quite capable of launching this thing into orbit it appears that the sourcing of a launch vehicle will be left up to an exercise for the purchaser. Whilst I don’t doubt the capabilities of the companies like SpaceX to deliver such a craft into orbit the announcement of a new “orbital” space company is a bit of a stretch when realistically they’re just giving you the tin can that will keep you safe. Additionally the man rating of rockets is well, rocket science and choosing a launch vehicle instead of letting the buyer source one himself would make the whole operation a lot safer.
The aggressive time schedule of 2013 is something that I will be watching closely. By that time I would expect that the SpaceX Dragon would have conducted several flight tests and would be their main competitor. However SpaceX haven’t announced any plans to use the Dragon for space tourism purposes and the design of the capsule reflects that (lack of windows and large interior volumes). This doesn’t rule them out though as Bigelow Aerospace will eagerly take the opportunity to use the Dragon to ferry its customers up to their space hotels, something which the craft is completely capable of doing. Actually it looks like the future is going to be filled with many companies fighting it out in the private orbital space tourism industry.
Maybe, just maybe in our lifetimes the everyman will get his chance to go to space.