500,000 Pieces of Space Junk Are Orbiting the Earth. Here’s How We Can Get Rid of Them.

Celestial Dump

Humans have a real knack for leaving their mark wherever they go. Thanks to the curiosity of the human mind and our grand ambitions, this trait is no longer just relegated to the planet we inhabit. According to NASA, there are currently more than 500,000 pieces of human garbage orbiting the Earth. The items are known as orbital debris, to differentiate between other objects such as meteoroids and these man-made particles, or more colloquially, space junk. The junk is comprised of old satellites, used rocket components, and pieces of rock chipped off of natural orbiting bodies.

[Kelsey] Scientists Have Proposed Some Novel Ways of Cleaning Up Space Junk

Space junk presents a clear danger to satellites and shuttles as well as the International Space Station (ISS) itself. The junk can travel at speeds up to 28163 km/h (17,500 mph), so even a small piece of debris can pose a serious threat to an operational piece of equipment. “The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.

Realizing this problem, several companies are investigating ways of dealing with the space junk—hopefully before it gets to the seemingly insurmountable scale of what humans have done to Earth’s oceans.

Gone Fishing


Image credit: ESA
Image credit: ESA

This is the e.DeOrbit proposed as a means of space cleanup submitted by Clean Space, a part of the European Space Agency (ESA). The idea was first proposed in 2014 and is still in development. The agency is working on a number of different ways the mission will capture the debris. The ESA has been able to narrow it down to two possible mechanisms of capture: nets or robotic arms. Whichever is chosen, the goal will be the same: to snag the debris out of orbit and bring it to a lower altitude into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. This project is currently projected to launch in 2023.

CleanSpace: One and Done


Image credit: EPFL
Image credit: EPFL

Another concept aims to pick off space debris one by one. The CleanSpace One is being developed to de-orbit Switzerland’s SwissCube nanosat. The satellite cleanup device is set to launch from the SOAR space plane, an unmanned mini-shuttle. The CleanSpace One also looks to fling the target satellite into the atmosphere to burn up. The project is looking forward to launching in 2018.

Zap the Whip


Image credit: JAXA
Image credit: JAXA

Late last year, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, launched an electrodynamic tether, called an EDT, into space. The cable is 700 meters (2,296 feet) long and is meant to assist in deorbiting dangerous space junk. The idea is that the electrified tether will work with the attached 20 kilogram (44 pound) counterweight to zap space debris to slow it down and redirect it toward the atmosphere, where it can safely burn up upon reentry.

Other methods proposed haven’t released new developments in the past few years. Other proposals included catching debris and slinging it into the atmosphere or using a solar sail to ensnare debris and lead it to its fiery end. Other scientists have suggested casting a three kilometer (two mile) wide net into space to knock space junk out of orbit. Finally, and perhaps the most fun, is sending balloons up to space to hit debris with a gust of wind to send it hurtling toward the atmosphere.

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NASA Astronauts Lose a Key Piece of the ISS Shield During Spacewalk


NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough lost an important piece of shielding required by the International Space Station (ISS) during a routine spacewalk to carry out repairs.

The cloth shielding, which was supposed to be securely tethered to the station or astronaut, was meant to protect against micrometeorite debris. It was one of four pieces that Whitson and Kimbrough were tasked to install.

Whitson, who is now the oldest and most experienced woman to conduct a spacewalk, promptly reported the incident to Mission Control, which is now tracking the 1.5 meter (5 foot), 8 kg (18 pound) object as it floats in space. Both astronauts were able to address the matter by patching up the hole where the shielding cloth should have been.

No Need to Panic

Space Junk: The Pollution Problem of Tomorrow
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According to NASA spokesman Dan Huot, the three remaining shields are being used to cover the craft’s most vulnerable spots, so despite being an annoying setback, the situation isn’t anywhere near as dire as one might assume, and won’t put the ISS at any risk of danger. However, it does add to the problem of space debris. This piece of cloth will join more than 500,000 pieces of debris floating at speeds of up to 28,162 km/h (17,500 mph) around the Earth.

To avoid the potential of the shield crashing back into the ISS, NASA is tracking it carefully. Should it pose any possibility of colliding with the ISS, they will know about it in advance, but NASA assures the public that it’s unlikely.

In any case, once it gets pulled into Earth’s orbit, the debris should make its way into the atmosphere where it will burn up, erasing any evidence of this off-world mistake.

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