Most adventures begin with great excitement, gradually become mundane, and ultimately conclude with a visit from the clean-up crew. Space flight, it seems, is no exception. Scientists in Switzerland are planning to send a “janitor satellite” into the atmosphere to combat space debris, a menace Miller-McCune has sounded alarms over a few times in recent years.
As Miller-McCune’s David Richardson has documented, roughly 28,000 man-made objects are hurtling around the planet at speeds around 15,000 miles per hour. Everything from active satellites to miniscule detritus from decades of space exploration litters the galactic landscape, endangering any expedition through Earth’s immediate orbit.
The problem has become more significant since the late 1980s, as many of these pieces of debris — and the occasional active satellites — collide into one another, and as China and the United States quietly race to test missile defense systems in outer space, creating additional debris. The space stuff, ranging in size from a few centimeters to school-bus scale, threatens more than satellites, the International Space Station, and possibly humans on Earth; the mere potential danger could increase insurance costs for all forms of space exploration by billions.
So what’s the Swiss solution? The team from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) hopes to launch the CleanSpace One as early as 2015, according to a report that appeared today on space.com. CleanSpace One will test-grab two defunct space objects of roughly 61 cubic inches before heading back toward Earth to disintegrate in our atmosphere, destroying itself along with the debris.
The hope is that the 12-inch-by-4-inch box with a crab-like claw will serve as a model for grabbing objects in orbit — a tricky task to accomplish while moving at thousands of miles per hour. The design team, according to space.com, drew inspiration for the janitor’s crab-like grabber from living organisms.
This is all good news, but the “space janitor” may need some help finding those sections of the atmosphere where it’s needed most. As Richardson argued in a separate article he wrote for Miller-McCune on the same topic, there is a dire need for a “space wiki.”
This wiki would help address the glaring absence of consensus on how to model the path that debris will follow in orbiting the Earth. According to Richardson, no authoritative database exists to guide efforts to remediate the problem — or even to help active space flights (manned or unmanned) avoid running into debris.