So long as it required being in space even the most menial of jobs would be the best job in the world. It’s been a fantasy of mine for some time that I would happily be a space garbage man if such a profession existed. It just so happens that the Earth is in dire need of someone, or something, to clean up the massive volume of clutter circling the planet. To put it in the simplest of terms, were turning Earth’s low orbit into a junkyard.
Most people have no clue as to how many satellites are in orbit, both functional and defunct. And its not just that they’re up there, dead or alive, floating around; around four collisions a year result in satellites breaking up into debris of varying size, which in turn become projectiles traveling at dizzying hypervelocity speeds posing a danger not only to important functioning satellites, but also the crew of the ISS, as well as any potential robots or manned vehicles that might someday be cleaning up the junk.
A piece of space debris generated by China in January 2007 collided with Russia’s BLITS satellite. The collision affected both the satellite’s orbit and its rate of rotation. The detonation of China’s FENGYUN satellite in 2007 created over 2,300 pieces of debris big enough to be tracked from the ground.
In short, it’s becoming a very real hazard zone up there.
In an article
to be published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets
the authors try to identify the best method for dealing with all the orbital clutter.
The article examines the potential orbital debris removal options that lead to the least amount of additional clutter left behind, as well as the smallest risk of damaging functioning satellites.
The authors conclude that ultra-thin inflation-maintained de-orbit devices that “pull” much of the small, high-risk debris down from orbit is the best option.
They don’t describe what these devices might look like, but I can draw from science fiction to imagine them: sleek silvery robots reminiscent of Smart cars are deposited into low earth orbit by reusable payload delivery vehicles.
These robotic “garbage trawlers” unfurl ultra-thin panels to increase their surface area many times over.
A strong electromagnetic force is generated, attracting huge volumes of small debris to the panels as the robot sweeps across its pre-programmed field of operation.
Upon collecting their maximum payload boosters drive the robots into the atmosphere and begin a controlled free fall, fluttering down like the seeds of a dandelion, resulting in its crashing into the ocean for pickup by a retrieval ship.
Unfortunately it looks like the role of space garbage man will be relegated to my dreams for some time to come. Until the salvaging of entire defunct satellites becomes a viable undertaking, it looks like automated or remotely controlled robots are going to do the job. Yay robotic outsourcing…