Business, Finance & Economics

A vacuum cleaner for space junk? (VIDEO)


An artist's impression of the size of the debris field surrounding Earth.


European Space Agency

Here's the problem:

Thousands of pieces of space junk are today orbiting our blue planet, at dizzying and dangerous speeds.

NASA alone tracks 16,000 pieces of this stuff every day.

So what happens when this debris collides with one of the 700 satellites that are up there tracking our weather, as well as powering our phones, televisions, GPS devices, and other things?

More space junk is created, increasing the likelihood of further collisions, which, in turn, creates even more space junk.

The cycle goes on and on, hurtling toward a chaotic and dystopian future of surging costs and deadly peril for astronauts. 

But don't worry, the Swiss are on it.

Scientists at the Swiss Space Center at EPFL today announced the launch of CleanSpace One, what they call a "project to develop and build the first installment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris."

In other words, they're planning to launch giant vacuum cleaners into space to suck up debris, and then safely send it back down to earth.

Here's how EPFL explains it:

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.

And, of course, there's a video:

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