Summary: Space junk orbiting the Earth is an eyesore and can even endanger missions and astronauts. Innovative technology is taking aim at cleaning up the clutter.
If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s making a mess wherever we go. Even the most remote places on the planet, like the top of Mount Everest, are full of junk. Despite being a National Park and World Heritage Site, the peak of the highest mountain on Earth has been dubbed “the world’s highest garbage dump.”
Our tendency to leave a mess isn’t limited to Earth, either. According to the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Space Debris Office, more than 36,500 pieces of space greater than 10 cm in size orbit the planet. It’s estimated that more than 1 million pieces are between 1 and 10 cm and more than 130 million are smaller than 1 cm.
In addition to being an unsightly eyesore, this space junk can be dangerous. Even a tiny piece of metal debris at high speed can punch through the hull of a spacecraft, putting astronauts at risk. Until recently, we haven’t had anything capable of cleaning up all the junk we’ve left in orbit. Astroscale has since introduced a satellite that can clean up the debris.
Astroscale launched the ELSA-d from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in March 2021. Short for End-of-Life Services, this satellite will serve as a test for a new technology that, if successful, could potentially provide the tools necessary to clean up the massive mess of space junk in orbit.
The ELSA-d test launch is made up of two different devices. One, the servicer satellite, is designed to capture a piece of space junk. The second will serve as a client satellite that will act like space junk.
The downside of the ELSA design is that it can’t dock with just any piece of floating space junk in orbit. Instead, if it proves successful, future satellites will be launched with a compatible docking plate as part of their design.
Cleaning up Our Orbital Space
ELSA-d is only an option for satellites launched after its implementation. What can be done to reduce the amount of space junk currently orbiting our planet? There aren’t any plans yet, but that hasn’t stopped people from looking into ways to safely knock space junk out of the sky.
Laser Orbital Debris Removal (LODR)
One potential solution is LODR, or the Laser Orbital Debris Removal System. There’s no need to develop new technologies for this system. Lasers would burn the junk right out of the sky or knock it into a lower orbit so it can burn up on its own. The downside is that it would cost roughly $1 million per object — quite the price tag when considering how much junk is already circling the Earth.
Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device (GOLD)
Balloons could be the answer. The Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device (GOLD) uses ultra-thin balloons to grab large pieces of space debris. The goal is to drag the waste into a lower orbit so it burns up faster. These football-field-sized balloons could bring a sizable defunct satellite that might not reenter the atmosphere for hundreds of years down in a few months.
Federal Institute of Technology researchers have another idea — self-destructing satellites called CleanSpace One. These little satellites could target space junk, grabbing hold of them and dive-bombing back into the atmosphere. The heat of reentry should burn up the satellite and the space junk, keeping it from presenting a risk to orbiting spacecraft or astronauts performing spacewalks.
Ballistic Orbit Removal System
Some researchers even think water is the answer. The Ballistic Orbit Removal System works by launching a rocket full of water into space, creating a wall that could push space junk out of orbit. These water walls may be the least expensive option for removing debris because they can be launched from decommissioned missile platforms. It could also be another application for the reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 booster platform.
The problem with many of these space-junk removal plans is that they’re an effectively low-tech option. They don’t differentiate between dead and currently operational satellites. One misplaced device could end up being a multi-billion dollar mistake.
Cleaning up Space Clutter
When we look toward the sky, we want to see the stars. If we keep moving forward as we have been, all we’re going to see is space junk and satellites. There are decades worth of garbage spinning in orbit around Earth, and something needs to be done. ELSA-d may be the first of its kind, but it will pave the way for future innovations. We need something else to help fill in the gap and remove the junk that is still making a mess up there. The last thing people want is to be pigs in space.
Author : Emily Newton, science and technology journalist, Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazin.