Space Garbage Truck Passes its First Test

Back in April we reported on the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station which carried, along with supplies and experiments for the orbiting outpost, the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft. Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS was designed as the world’s first practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. It included not only a number of different technologies for ensnaring nearby objects, it even brought along deployable targets to use them on.

Orbital debris (often referred to simply as “space junk”) is a serious threat to all space-faring nations, and has become even more pressing of a concern as the cost of orbital launches have dropped precipitously over the last few years, accelerating number and frequency of new objects entering orbit. The results of these first of their kind tests have therefore been hotly anticipated, as the technology to actively remove debris from Low Earth orbit (LEO) is seen by many in the industry to be a key element of expanding access to space for commercial purposes.

Six months after its arrival in space we’ve now starting to see the first results of the groundbreaking tests performed by the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft, and so far it’s very promising.

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Space Garbage Truck Takes Out the Trash

On April 2nd, 2018 a Falcon 9 rocketed skywards towards the International Space Station. The launch itself went off without a hitch, and the Dragon spacecraft delivered its payload of supplies and spare parts. But alongside the usual deliveries, CRS-14 brought a particularly interesting experiment to the International Space Station.

Developed by the University of Surrey, RemoveDEBRIS is a demonstration mission that aims to test a number of techniques for tackling the increasingly serious problem of “space junk”. Earth orbit is filled with old spacecraft and bits of various man-made hardware that have turned some areas of space into a literal minefield. While there have been plenty of ideas floated as to how to handle this growing issue, RemoveDEBRIS will be testing some of these methods under real-world conditions.

The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will do this by launching two CubeSats as test targets, which it will then (hopefully) eliminate in a practical demonstration of what’s known as Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology. If successful, these techniques could eventually become standard operating procedure on future missions.

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Hack Space Debris At Your Peril

Who has dibs on space debris? If getting to it were a solved problem, it sure would be fun to use dead orbital hardware as something of a hacker’s junk bin. Turns out there is some precedent for this, and regulations already in place in the international community.

To get you into the right frame of mind: it’s once again 2100 AD and hackers are living in mile-long space habitats in the Earth-Moon system. But from where do those hackers get their raw material, their hardware? The system abounds with space debris, defunct satellites from a century of technological progress. According to Earth maritime law, if space is to be treated like international waters then the right of salvage would permit them to take parts from any derelict. But is space like international waters? Or would hacking space debris result in doing hard time in the ice mines of Ceres?

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Japanese ISS Supply Ship Dual-Purposed As Tether Experiment

When a rocket sends a capsule up with supplies for the International Space Station, they usually send a bunch of their trash back down with it, all of which burns up in the atmosphere on re-entry. But as long as you’ve got that (doomed) vehicle up there, you might as well do some science with it along the way. And that’s exactly what the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is doing with their Kounotori 6 supply ship that just left the ISS on Friday.

The experiment is with an electromagnetic tether that can be used to either turn electrical energy into kinetic or vice-versa. When you string a long conducting wire outwards from earth, the two ends pass through the earth’s magnetic field at different altitudes and thus pass through magnetic fields with different strengths, and an electrical potential is generated. In the KITE experiment (translated), a resistive load and an electron emitter on the supply ship are designed to burn up this electrical energy, lowering the ship’s kinetic energy, and dropping its orbit down to earth.
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