An ESA-funded scientist is developing a magnetic space tug to combat the growing problem of space debris. The tugs could lock onto derelict satellites and deorbit them before they become a hazard to navigation, and because they use cryogenic magnets, they wouldn’t have to even touch the derelicts and the targets wouldn’t need to be specially modified for towing.
Millions of objects floating in orbit around the planet could one day lead to a disastrous collision in space.
That is the concern of the European Space Agency, that is hoping to tackle the growing problem of space debris.
It fears could one day lead to an impact like an ‘exploding grenade’ on the objects in space, such as the International Space Station (ISS).
Experts believe the junk could leave regions of space unsuitable for space flight and are holding an international meeting next week to address the issue head on.
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More than half a century of sending objects into space has left the Earth surrounded by junk. Bits of long-dead satellites, spent rocket stages and other debris orbit the planet at almost 18,000 mph, each chunk a potential hazard to working satellites or astronauts.
The Swiss have a plan, however. Scientists at the Swiss space centre at EPFL, the federal institute for technology in Lausanne, want to send a “janitor satellite” into orbit, to sweep up debris and permanently remove it from orbit.
Nasa keeps track of 16,000 pieces of orbiting junk that are larger than 10cm (4in) in diameter. There could be more than 500,000 measuring 1cm-10cm and many hundreds of millions smaller ones.
Even a small fragment of debris could severely damage (or even destroy) satellites or other spacecraft that collide with them, creating even more dangerous debris. The International Space Station has to regularly alter its orbit to avoid being hit by large bits of junk.
“It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation,” said Claude Nicollier, an astronaut and EPFL professor.
CleanSpace One would match its trajectory to that of its target using an EPFL-designed ultra-compact motor. When it reaches its target, it will grab the junk with a gripping claw. At speeds of up to 18,000mph, this will not be an easy task, especially if the junk is rotating. CleanSpace One will then head back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, along with its attached junk.
For its first mission, EPFL will aim to bring down one of two abandoned Swiss satellites: the Swisscube picosatellite, which was launched into orbit in 2009, or the TIsat, launched in July 2010.
Russia’s planned Mars/moon probe never escaped Earth orbit after its November launch, despite the efforts of Russian and European space agencies. It’s one of the heaviest and most toxic pieces of space junk ever to crash to Earth.
“We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites,” said Volker Gass, the Swiss space centre’s director, in a statement on the EPFL website.
Attribution: UK Guardian