Space; it’s a junkyard until the Swiss get their way

The Swiss plan to clean up the near-space environment. They just announced a debris removal device which they plan to launch in three to five years. The first goal of the program is to scoop up two satellites. Both of them are Swiss owned, but there’s something very James Bond like that pops into our heads when we hear that.

We’re sure you already know there’s a space junk issue in orbit. But did you know that NASA tracks a half-million pieces of orbital debris? Cleaning that up does sound like a good thing. The plan is to detect the offending item, match its trajectory, grab it somehow (which includes halting any spinning that it’s doing), then encapsulating everything for an eventual re-entry. Looks like they plan on the whole robot burning up along with the junk during that final stage.

We keep hearing about ways robots will clean up the messes we make. Hopefully we’ll see these in action at some point.

[via Reddit]

Comments

  1. Nomad says:

    Somehow reminds me of Wall-E

    It would be a nice thing if the machine could grab some junk and shoot it at a controlled angle towards earth so only said junk lands in some ocean/desert, but the robot still could work on. But i think the problem is, that they’re able to control the robot even if it’s flying towards earth, so they can change its trajectory. It would be dumb to launch an uncontrollable pile of crap, because even if you get the right angle, there is no guarantee it will move with that angle throughout the flight.

  2. DOT850 says:

    Same thought here: Wall-E

  3. nassi says:

    Wall-E? More like Planetes.

  4. Aleks Clark says:

    lame. should use a spring-powered piston to knock the junk into a re-entry orbit, while the satellite spins up to a higher orbit to deal with the next piece of junk. delta V (speaking of which, it REALLY irritates me when audiobook narrators pronounce it “delta five”) is a commodity in orbit, climb higher at the expense of the space junk!. Most of the crap in orbit will burn up fully, no need to worry about hitting things on the planet.

    • Eirinn says:

      …the roman numeral “V” is decimal 5. there’s nothing wrong in calling it “delta 5″ – if anything it would be wrong to pronounce it “delta V”.

      Also the rules of force is quite different in zero gravity than where there’s atmosphere. “just” knocking it with a piston would probably not do much as the force would re-align on both ends either pushing the trash-bot or the item or both.

      • Dr.Bob says:

        Pronouncing it “Delta Five” is just plain wrong. The “V” in this case isnt the Roman numeral 5, it is the abbreviation for velocity. Delta just means change. So saying “Change in five” is not the same thing as saying “Chaning in velocity”.

        WORDS MEAN THINGS. Use them properly, or at least try too.

        Writen by someone who tries, but doesnt always succeed.

      • Hammerhead says:

        The problem with physics in 0G is what he talked about when he said that the bot could “climb” higher at the expense of the junk. If the bot pushes something towards earth, both objects will get pushed with the equal force but in different directions. This means, the junk will go down and the bot will go up.
        You can prevent this by firing those nozzles which are responsible for the bot being under control at all times.

      • chiralspiral says:

        Although V is Latin for 5, in this instance, “V” is not representing five but actually is the letter V. It represents “velocity”. Delta (or Δ) is the greek letter used in science to signify a change. Delta V is therefore a change in velocity (acceleration) and is not “delta five” which does not mean anything.

      • Chuck Finley says:

        …in the term delta V, the V does not stand for 5. It stands for Velocity.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta-v

      • Aleks Clark says:

        wow, getting backed up by two different commentators grapple & orient object at correct angle for orbit-hopping -> junk-reaction-drive fires -> thrusters correct any instability -> another minor burn to match orbit with next piece of junk. you’d probably want a long, slow push rather than a fast hard one, necessitating a longer piston, but you wouldn’t want bits of satellite spalling off under impact…

      • Aleks Clark says:

        apparently I shouldn’t use random ;lt ;gt signs for decoration in my comments…

      • Whatnot says:

        If you simply push it it will spiral to earth, during that spiral if could easily hit a satellite or the ISS or something, so then you made things worse since not only did you lose valuable items and possibly even lives, but the impact would create a new set of objects to catch.

      • Aleks Clark says:

        errr and how is that different from any other orbital maneuver? Of course you have to be careful, the question is, can you push accurately enough to have really low odds of needing to correct?

        Alternatively, some little solid propellant pods could be attached to the junk before shoving it off, to make minor corrections…

    • space says:

      I actually expected it to use fersnel lens to heat, melt and cut larger pieces in to smaller and use some of junk as an propellant in some sort of ion drive. That way portion of the junk will be used better than burning it up in the atmosphere.

      • chiralspiral says:

        Are ion drives powerful enough to move up to higher orbits? I was under the impression they only worked once you were out of orbit and in very weak gravitational fields. Neat idea though, especially the Fresnel lens cutter :).

  5. N0LKK says:

    sigh] we should be reading about NASA or Russia, having similar plans, perhaps they do and I haven’t read of them. There my be remote hazards, but the trash is to renter someday, so it’s not like the hazards can be eliminated. Unless a reusable cargo space craft is developed that can retrieve the trash, put it in the hold for a controlled reentry.

    Personally I think they should develop and deploy a huge net with motors on each corner above the trash. Fire it toward Earth scooping all the trash. Burn baby burn. Hopefully ;)

  6. asd says:

    Swiss are very clean:
    i live near switzerland and they’re know not to leave a single piace of trash on the road,now they’re doing it in space!

  7. cmholm says:

    This is a good first step, grabbing the low hanging fruit. The real hassle comes when trying to clear out the existing collision debris.

  8. dishwater63 says:

    Actually, this reminds me of an anime called Planetes. Its about how there’s so much space debris that people clean it up as an occupation.

    But yeah, Wall-E too :)

  9. Drew says:

    The proper Bond movie reference here would actually be “From Russia With Love,” where the evil volcano-dwelling super villain scoops up Soviet and American crew capsules with a rocket of his own. As far as I’m aware, having seen all released Bond movies, “Moonraker” involves more space debris creation than any other Bond movie.

  10. Skitchin says:

    Exploration and budgeting should be two entirely separate things. Through combining the two, we’ve simply guaranteed that only capital-gain or war will push the envelope of space exploration.

  11. Hirudinea says:

    Use a giant baloon with reaction controls, bump the junk into a decaying orbit and let atmospheric friction take care of the problem.

  12. dishwater63 says:

    Actually, this reminds me of an anime called Planetes. It’s about how in the future people will be picking up space debris as an occupation.

    But yeah, Wall-E too :)

  13. MS3FGX says:

    It’s crazy to me how many space vehicles are designed as single-use machines. We’re never going to get anywhere if we always blow the thing up when we are done with it.

    I once read something along the lines of “If an airliner exploded every time it reached it’s destination and unloaded it’s passengers, there would be no such thing as a commercial airline industry”. I think this is an excellent analogy, and shows how ridiculous our current methods of space travel really are.

    Like the previous commenters said, there has to be some kind of way it can take these things out without resorting to a suicide mission.

    • Pete says:

      Space vehicles are single-use because making them able to survive re-entry adds mass; every bit of mass that must be taken to orbit increases the size of the launch vehicle. The space shuttle was only “reusable” if you ignore the boosters and fuel tank it discarded.

      Additionally, the stress on space vehicles is very high during launch and re-entry. You have to be sure that it can survive the cycling.

      The work of Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites is interesting here: basically a materials science effort to produce light, strong, heat-resistant materials that can meet those requirements.

  14. Chris says:

    A lot of the space junk is very small, but must be tracked because it’s still capable of doing massive damage if run into at orbiting speeds.

    There’s been some experimentation with propelling space vehicles with Earth-based lasers. Granted we have a long way to go before that’s practical for anything large, but couldn’t it already be used to clear some of the smaller space junk? All it takes is a gentle nudge..

  15. Aleks Clark says:

    Oh I like the net and balloon ideas…good way to clear broad swaths of orbit.

  16. James Glanville says:

    I’m not surprised nobody has really tried to clean this stuff up, unless you’re going to get 100% of it, you still need to track it, build in safeguards to spacecraft etc. This won’t be much easier with even a 10x reduction in debris, not much point IMHO

    • Metalwolf says:

      I agree, not much point in cutting your own lawn either. /sarcasm

    • Munch says:

      Sorry, James, but there is a big point to this. The amount of operational expense we budget for tracking the debris is more or less proportional to the amount of debris in existence. If the amount of debris were to be reduced somehow, the amount of funding organizations like NASA requires to track said debris similarly will diminish, allowing NASA to reallocate those funds towards actual science missions.

      And that’s as good a point as I can ever think of.

  17. wildzbill says:

    It costs a lot to get things into space. You would think that the effort should be to keep it and use it there, not push it into re-entry.
    There is probably enough stuff out there that robots could gather it up and build a junkyard habitat.

  18. Necromant says:

    Finally! DIY sattelites won’t get hit by debris any more!

  19. Mike says:

    Look out for Skynet.

  20. LED says:

    I like the idea of space tethers with EM drives.

  21. Luke says:

    I think it’s a great idea (and that’s nothing to do with me being swiss). What might cause some confusion is, the plan is to hurl dead but intact satellites towards earth. It’s not about cleaning junk, it’s about preventing it.

    But: Are you guys not frightened about the fact that if we get this system to work, we are the “space police” and are able to disable any satellite we don’t like? (I’m pretty sure that’s not our idea, but I’m surprised that the USA isn’t acting offended by the possible threat).

    If it comes to the decision to use such a system for an offensive, trust me, it would take years to get the paperwork done and discussed before anything would happen. Read the news, we swiss are slow like hell xD

    • jdbaucom says:

      That is exactly why the US isn’t upset. It would take so long to get the paperwork done they’d just destroy the trash bot and create a bigger mess.

    • pockpock says:

      That’s an interesting thought. I guess the space isn’t anyones territory. Being able to “protect” it from unwanted satellites would give you sovereignty there and therefore you could proclaim it as part of Switzerland.

      I like the idea. With you being a neutral state, you could ban any military satellites but then again that couldn’t be that easy.

      • Munch says:

        OORR, they could get a power trip and cease to remain neutral. Even if .ch remains neutral, space supremacy through garbage collection is a space race easily won by building bigger, more agile garbage trucks. Any country, including non-neutral countries, could easily participate in this “garbage war.”

      • Whatnot says:

        the UD has anti-satellite missiles fired from jets for a very long time, and the military even did experiments with satellites that remain in space but can move up to ‘hostile’ satellites and then destroy them.
        You think a country as madly aggressive and distrustful (don’t bitch, it’s true and you know it) as the US hadn’t already thought it all up?

      • Whatnot says:

        I mean ‘the US’, made a typo and don’t want to create a defcon alert for some mystery country called ‘UD’ :)

    • Chris says:

      As a resident of the USA, my first thought was: Cleaning up space junk is a good thing, and benefits all nations. So it’s great that Switzerland is taking an initiative, and hopefully others will follow.

      Didn’t really think of a military angle until you mentioned it.

      But suppose it was used in such a fashion. The “trash sat” would necessarily be even slower than the Swiss bureaucracy, in order to conserve its limited propellant supply. It starts moving in the right direction and mostly lets inertia do the rest. There would be plenty of time to determine its destination, and presumably its intent.

      If it was *allowed* to reach its target and actually interfered with its operation, that could be taken as a declaration of war. Thus giving the target nation clear excuse to retaliate, including but not limited to destruction of the “trash sat”. And there’s ways to eliminate a satellite far more quickly and directly from the ground.

      I suppose it could also adjust the trajectory of space junk, using it as projectiles against other satellites. You might even be able to claim the first time was an accident. :) But do it twice, same ultimate result.

      All in all, (mis)using this for military purposes is impractical.

  22. pockpock says:

    Ok this is cool and sounds like a good idea, but why is it here? An 11 million dollar space janitor is hardly a hack.

  23. GZ says:

    My plan was a “net” as well but something that would be more gel and envelope like. A high speed collision into the next decelerates the object as it is captured.

    The issue is other items caught in the net are likely expelled but at a new and in theory slower pace increasing the decay rate. But of course this means tracked objects are suddenly in new and unexpected paths.

    The box of junk re-entry shouldn’t be much of an issue as most items should burn up on re-entry. Large items would need an alternative solution.

  24. dbear says:

    I agree with Wildzbill. It cost a bundle to get that stuff up there($10000/KG or so.) The robot should gather the junk up and park it at a Lagrange point. Later whoever owns it could get a bundle for it.

  25. Riddle says:

    Hey have anyone here played Redalert3 , there is a weapon called orbital junk or something like that which aims the junk at enemy facilities ..

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