Space — particularly, low Earth orbit — is becoming a messy place. Thousands of satellites (both operational and defunct), spent rockets, and tons of fragments resulting from collisions and erosion of the former, circle our planet. Upwards of 16,000 of these objects larger than 10 centimeters are tracked by the United States Space Surveillance System1. While space, including low Earth orbit, is a vast place, collisions can, and have, happened.
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(Image Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)
In 2009, the US Iridium 33 communications satellite was destroyed when the retired Russian Cosmos 2251 collided with it. Not only did this collision have an effect, albeit minor, on global communications, it resulted in one of the greatest debris generation events to occur in low Earth orbit.2 It’s a compounding problem; debris and defunct satellites collide, creating even more debris.
Fixing Half Of The Problem
There are essentially two problems that we, as a spacefaring civilization, need to address: disposing of existing debris and preventing future debris in the first place. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)), has set its sights set on solving the latter, with their revolutionary satellite, CleanSpace One. The EPFL announced on Wednesday that it planned to develop and launch what is being nicknamed a “janitor satellite” as a trial demonstration of how satellites can be captured from orbit and be re-directed towards Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery disposal. The $10.8-million (USD)3 project will create a single-use satellite, which is expected to capture and de-orbit one of two currently-orbiting Swiss satellites, SwissCube and its cousin Tlsat-1.
(Image Credit: EPFL)
Yes, single-use. If you think $10-million+ is a lot of money to experimentally de-orbit a single satellite, I cannot help but to agree with you. However, if you look at CleanSpace One as the first step towards the long-term future of maintaining space, then you start to think that this is an important and worthwhile investment. Due to the increasing problem that space junk is becoming, the costs involved with creating and launching the spacecraft we put into orbit, and the insurance costs to protect that investment once you get it there, I strongly believe that cleaning up space is going to be a lucrative and necessary industry in the not-too-distant future.
Kudos to the EPFL for making this a priority. I hope one day we can look back on CleanSpace One and point to it as being an important first step in keeping the space around our planet tidy!
For more information on CleanSpace One, check out the following video. The satellite capture method is particularly intriguing.
- The Air Force Space Surveillance System, which is colloquially known as the “Space Fence”, detects and catalogs objects as small as a baseball, between low Earth orbit all the way to an altitude of 30,000 kilometers (about 18,000 miles). ↩
- Second only to the intentional destruction of Fengyun-1C, as part of a Chinese anti-satellite missile test. It created more than an estimated 35,000 pieces of new debris larger than 1 centimeter. ↩
- 10-million Swiss francs. ↩