Next Big Thing

What Is Space Junk and How Can We Get Rid of It?

Feb 23, 2015

With global problems like, climate change, unstable economies and wars in the world it is easy to be unaware of the problems that are building up off Earth’s surface. Most people are completely unaware of the “Space Junk” that is piling up over our heads and why would they. After all, how does a spent rocket stage, a piece of an old satellite or a piece of debris from a collision affect them in their day-to-day lives? It seems easy to just forget about it but space junk could easily turn into a key issue in the not so distant future.

US Air Force Space Command claims that they track more than 16,000 large pieces of man-made space debris, usually over 10cm across, that are making continual loops around our little ball of dirt. That might not seem very dangerous, but the problem with orbiting space junk is that to stay in orbit means that you have to be going really, really fast. A typical satellite will travel more than 12,000 miles per hour (20,000 km/h) and can orbit the earth in less than 2 hours. Even a slight fender bender with a piece of soft foam at that speed can destroy a satellite.

Countries like the US, Russia and China have launched several satellites into space and have destroyed a few as well. In 2007 China destroyed a satellite to test their new anti-satellite weapon. This explosion alone created an additional 150,000 pieces of debris which were larger than 1 cm in size, any one of which could damage or destroy satellites or even the International Space Station.

The second big problem with space junk is that once it is out there, it tends to stay there for a long time. There is nothing to break it down or knock it back to earth so if nothing happens to it, debris can orbit earth for centuries until it hits something or eventually falls back to Earth and burns up.

In 1978 NASA scientist, Donald Kessler, warned the world that space junk could eventually initiate a chain of impacts that could render entire orbital zones impassable. Known as Kessler Syndrome, this happens when one satellite impacts another and instead of 2 lightning fast missiles hurling through space, there are now hundreds of thousands of them, which in turn collide with other objects. This cascade of collisions could quickly escalate until the whole orbit is filled with pebble-sized objects that destroy anything in their path.

Obviously, it is easier to clean up one derelict satellite than to wait for it to have a collision and then track down one-hundred thousand pieces spread across thousands of kilometers of space.

To help deal with this problem before it starts interrupting services or damaging sensitive infrastructure, some agencies have started developing innovative technologies.

Swiss Space Center (SSC) is trying clean up this new frontier. Noosphere is quite excited to see agencies that are so eager to start now to protect us from ourselves. The primary motive of SSC is to educate people and raise awareness of the current situation.

Here are three exciting projects that Noosphere is watching close that promise to save space from become just another junk heap:

Phoenix is a mission launched by United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in which the robotic spacecraft will look for derelict satellites and harvest the still usable hardware. The service satellite will be able to attach a module that allows broken or salvaged parts to be reused for new missions.

CleanSpace One is a robotic janitor that is launched into the space from an airplane. The janitor grapples the faulty satellite and plunges back into the Еarth’s atmosphere. It will destroy itself along with the derelict satellite on the way back.

Earth-Based Lasers. It might seem like a solution you would see on Star Trek, but setting your lasers <> to deorbit might be the easiest way to bring down unwanted floaters. But these lasers wouldn’t be powerful enough to blast a satellite out of the sky. They would rather be shone on the debris for several hours until it slowed down and would gracefully fall into the atmosphere and burn up upon reentry.

Noosphere Space is a new startup of Noosphere. It has partnered with the A.M. Makarov Yuzhny Machine-Building Plant, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of rockets, and is designing multipurpose space modules and unique engines to conduct space research. The company was founded with the ultimate goal of solving the space debris problem.

With several solutions on the horizon, Noosphere believes that the world will come together to meet this challenge. But like most serious, global issues, there is no silver bullet solution. In the end, it will be through a true noospherian effort that brings together thousands of minds to develop multiple solutions that will help us protect and preserve our interstellar doorstep.