The US Space Force Wants to Clean Up Junk in Orbit

Neither the space industry nor government institutions have yet narrowed in on a particular approach toward space trash. For example, Rogue Space Systems is developing a wasp-like spacecraft called Fred Orbot, with solar panels that resemble wings. It’s designed to pick up medium-sized pieces of space garbage and move them away from oncoming satellites. With its four robotic appendages, it will float toward debris or a satellite, snatch it in its arms, and gently tow it into a different orbit. If it’s grabbing a piece of space junk, it will push it down into a lower orbit, so that it will eventually fall and burn up in the atmosphere. Alternatively, Fred could be equipped with small thrusters or tethers it could stick to a defunct spacecraft to propel the object downward, allowing Fred to quickly flutter on toward its next orbital task.

Other companies have been focusing on technologies to get rid of larger pieces of trash, including bus-sized rocket bodies that, in the event of a collision, would create a lot of debris. This debris can weigh tons, won’t be easy to grab or move to a new orbit, and could be too huge to burn up. “These objects aren’t sitting there; they’re tumbling. You have a very difficult choreography for the rendezvous,” says Darren McKnight, senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, a company based in Menlo Park, California that monitors space junk with radar systems. He and his colleagues are experimenting with a third approach, often called “just-in-time collision avoidance.” This could involve attaching thrusters and a GPS receiver to a dead satellite, turning it into a kind of zombie craft, which could be made to move on its own—at least enough to avoid a crash. Or something as simple as a puff of powder in front of a dead spacecraft could provide enough air resistance to slow it or slightly nudge it onto a different trajectory.

Regardless of the approach, McKnight says, with so many technologies in development, he’d like to see them used sooner rather than later. “We need to actually put these systems that are known to work into orbit. The time for tinkering is over,” he says.

This sentiment is reflected in a spate of new international initiatives, like Net Zero Space, announced on November 12 at the Paris Peace Forum, an international nonprofit group that organized the effort. The Net Zero Space declaration reads like a United Nations agreement, with a commitment to two main goals: Don’t make more space debris, and start removing current debris by 2030. “Collective, concrete steps must be taken to prevent a rapid degradation of Earth’s orbital environment,” it states.

Despite widespread recognition of the space junk problem among both space agencies and the industry, “there’s very little international cooperation,” says Jérôme Barbier, head of space, digital and economic issues at the Paris Peace Forum. Yet, he continues, “space debris does not have nationalities. They are threatening all of our assets and all of the services related to them, and we need to take action before it’s too late.”

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