Space junk spawns new industry for collecting debris

Space Science

A rendering shows the ClearSpace-1 collector in low Earth orbit. (ClearSpace / Twitter)

MYSTERY WIRE — The 2016 story of a paint flake that put a chip in the window of the International Space Station is a sobering reminder of the dangers in space.

Similar damage was common on Space Shuttle missions. There’s even an acronym for the particles that cause the damage: MMOD — MicroMeteorioid and Orbital Debris.

A paint flake! Even something that small — if it’s moving fast enough — can cause all kinds of havoc if you’re in the way. Imagine the damage a wayward satellite might do if it hits something important.

Space junk window damage
A “ding” in a picture window on the International Space Station is a reminder of the dangers of “space junk. (ESA/NASA)

It’s far too late to “pack out your trash” in space. Junk is everywhere, and it’s just a matter of time until something bad happens.

That’s why ClearSpace, a Swiss junk-removal startup parterning with the European Space Agency, is launching a robotic garbage collector in 2025. Its first target is a 220-pound piece of space junk called Vespa, left in space after a 2013 ESA mission left it drifting 500 miles above the Earth’s surface.

space junk
A “bullet hole” caused by common space junk.

What’s hard to fathom is that when ClearSpace finds Vespa, it’s going to “swallow” it and drag it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up on re-entry. It’s a kamikaze garbage truck.

Hard to believe, in this age of reusable rockets and space capsules.

The collection device has been described alternatively as a trash-hugger and a Pac-Man system.

With more than 2,000 live satellites and 3,000 dead ones, the problem is getting worse with every new mission.

“Even if all space launches were halted tomorrow, projections show that the overall orbital debris population will continue to grow, as collisions between items generate fresh debris in a cascade effect,” says Luisa Innocenti, heading ESA’s Clean Space initiative.

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