Space Junk – How to Clean Up Space Debris

  • The Russian space research company StartRocket has developed a new method for capturing space debris.
  • According to the European Space Agency, more than 129 million pieces of debris are racing around our planet.
  • This latest idea is one of many proposed designs for scooping space debris from Earth orbit.

    There’s a lot of junk in space. Since the beginning of the space race, we’ve been slowly filling Earth’s orbit with millions of tiny pieces of metal, paint chips, and other machines. These debris pose a threat to astronauts stationed in orbit, the network of earth-orbiting communications and weather satellites, and future missions designed to explore the distant areas of the solar system.

    Megaconstellations like SpaceX’s Starlink are becoming increasingly popular. And the more satellites that are put into orbit, the greater the likelihood of a collision. Experts fear that a single collision could cause a chain reaction of crashes and fill Earth’s orbit with so much debris that we would not be able to escape the planet. This catastrophic cascade is known as Kessler syndrome.

    So yes. This is a very big problem and it only gets worse.

    For this reason, a number of space research startups have joined space agencies in recent years to clean up the cosmos. The US Air Force has proposed lasers zapping faulty debris, while NASA scientists have proposed launching solar-powered satellites Directing garbage towards the earth’s atmosphere.

    For example, the University of Surrey’s RemoveDEBRIS satellite was launched from the International Space Station and successfully networked a piece of space debris in April 2018. The satellite later harpooned a piece of space debris in orbit.

    Now the Russian space company StartRocket has developed a new plan to remove hazardous waste with foam. The startup’s 110-pound barrel-shaped satellite – called the Foam Debris Catcher – would deploy after a collision.

    As soon as the satellite has reached the cloud of debris, it spreads a network of space-quality polymer foam arms that, according to StartRocket, can hold up to a ton of space debris. As soon as the satellite picks up enough debris, the orbital drag would pull it towards Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn.

    Startrocket’s polymer foam absorbs space debris.

    StartRocket

    StartRocket is working with the cybersecurity titan Kaspersky on this project. “By supporting StartRocket, Kaspersky wants to raise awareness of wasted space and draw global attention to young technology projects with great potential,” the company said in a statement.

    According to its incredibly eye-catching website, StartRocket plans to launch a Kickstarter in December to raise funds. The company will raise funds to test the foam and docking mechanism and file a patent. StartRocket says it will test the technology in 2022 by launching Test Foam Sat (TFS), a small, 3D-printed design attached to a Cubesat, into orbit. If everything goes according to plan, StartRocket will bring the larger and more expensive Foam Debris Catcher to market by 2023 and scale from there.

    Foam may sound strange, but it could also work, says John L. Crassidis, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Buffalo University. “It works on the well-known process of enlarging a debris surface to increase its air resistance and so bring it back into the earth’s atmosphere and burn faster,” Crassidis told Forbes.

    This idea seems to work against StartRocket’s latest venture, the orbital billboard. Last year, the company announced plans to design and launch flashing billboards that would glow on earth for a year. Fortunately, these plans are being put on hold.

    To update: In a previous version of this article, the StartRocket website was attributed to Kaspersky. We apologize for the mistake.

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