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‘Janitor Satellite’ To Clean Up Orbiting Space Junk

Janitor satellite

It’s no secret that Earthlings leave a mess everywhere they go, including space. However, a few Earthlings (Swiss scientists, to be exact) believe they have come up with a solution that will help tidy up space and get rid of the increasing amount of space junk orbiting the globe.

CleanSpace One, the $11 million “janitor satellite” is in development at the Swiss Space Center at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL). Its targets are useless satellites floating around in space that threaten current communications and information networks.

With 16,000 bits of debris that are larger than 4 inches across, the International Space Station has to adjust its orbit just to get out of the way. These pieces hurl through space and crash into each other, making even more pieces, and endangering the lives of astronauts.

CleanSpace One is expected to launch in three to five years, and will use a robotic arm or other mechanism to grab a target satellite and force it toward Earth, where both will burn up as they reenter.

It’s much easier said than done, and in order to get it to work properly, scientists have to get it moving on the same orbital plane as its target, give it the ability to grab it at high speeds, and then quickly de-orbit it. The lab is currently working on the “ultra-compact motor” to help the janitor grasp debris at more than 17,000 mph while rotating.

CleanSpace One will be a one-shot deal at this point, with each successor going into orbit with it for a single capture mission, checking its abilities and reporting any issues. This means we probably won’t be seeing any regular janitor salellites in space anytime soon.

Maybe we need a CleanSpace One here on Earth, designed to snatch up people who don’t put their garbage in the trash or return their bottles. Wouldn’t that be a fun machine to operate?

via cnet
Image crdit: EPFL

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous

    Physically collecting _one_ satellite is hardly cleaning up ‘space junk’.
    Even the video notes that the problem is with the debris of previous missions, not direct collisions with other satellites.

    I’m not too concerned about the Geostationary satellites – the so-called ‘Graveyard orbit’ is pretty well established, and being enforced, at least for Telecoms sats targeting the continental US. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graveyard_orbit)

    I’d be worried that CleanSpace One would add as much to the debris in term of waste from its launch vehicle – aerodynamic fairings, connector frames, fragments from explosive bolts, etc – as it is going to clean up by grabbing SwissCube.

    IMO, the recent penchant for ‘micro satellites’ – like SwissCube – is part of the problem. Each little institute wants the kudos of putting its own satellite up there, more, it seems, for prestige purposes than real scientific or economic benefit.

    What we need is something to sweep through those low orbits and collect the junk – the real junk, the 10cm and smaller range – in much more significant quantities. I’m thinking something relatively large that could survive multiple impacts without fragmenting itself, and maybe even use the force of those impacts to eventually de-orbit itself.

  • http://www.the9billion.com/ John Johnston

    True, it is only a one-hit test project, which seems highly inefficient, and may not even work. I guess if it is successul to a certain degree, they will try for a reusable craft that can do the job repeatedly. I guess most things like this are done in increments, just as it took a long while for reusable shuttle to be developed. 

    I see that NASA is also on the search for a cleaner type of fuel. What they have been using is pretty toxic by the sound of it. http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2012/feb/HQ12-046_TDM_Green_Propellant.html