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Earth Space Science Technology

9 Ideas For Coping With Space Junk 149

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the we're-gonna-need-a-bigger-net dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The space age has filled Earth's orbit with all manner of space junk, from spent rocket stages to frozen bags of astronaut urine, and the problem keeps getting worse. NASA's orbital debris experts estimate that there are currently about 19,000 pieces of space junk that are larger than 10 centimeters, and about 500,000 slightly smaller objects. Researchers and space companies are plotting ways to clean up the mess, and a new photo gallery from Discover Magazine highlights some of the proposals. They range from the cool & doable, like equipping every satellite with a high-tech kite tail for deployment once the satellite is defunct, to the cool & unlikely, like lasers in space."
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9 Ideas For Coping With Space Junk

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  • by TrentTheThief (118302) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:41PM (#33428248)

    This is the solution:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvage_1 [wikipedia.org]

  • by stagg (1606187) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:42PM (#33428272)
    Sounds like the same kind of problem we're wrestling with down here.
  • Lasers... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:52PM (#33428402) Homepage

    This guy [ted.com] built a laser which tracks mosquitoes in a room and zaps them. Surely the technology can be adapted...

  • Out of dimension? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gmuslera (3436) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:53PM (#33428404) Homepage Journal
    The average junkyard in earth surface using a relatively few square meters have far more junk than that, and we are talking here of something of orders bigger than the entire earth surface, probably in an area of the size of a medium country you get one piece of more than 10 cm. The article puts it as something packed with junk. Ok, they aren't static, they orbit, and usually at big speeds (several times faster than a bullet), and is a problem with only increases with time, is not something to discard too easily, but still the warning seem a bit exaggerated.
  • by jappleng (1805148) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @01:58PM (#33428486) Homepage Journal
    Add a few laser "command centers" around orbit and have an online vector game ready to destroy the debris. Personally I liked the previous suggestion of space baseball.
  • Re:Hit or Miss (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:03PM (#33428544) Homepage Journal
    That Discovery article was a total waste of time. It really had little to do with "9 ways of dealing with space junk," and was more along the lines of "9 things that are kind of related that we want to talk about." As you mentioned, a couple of its nine methods of dealing with space junk could really just be grouped into the general theme of, stop putting more up there (deorbit your crap at end of mission). There were only three methods that actually discussed getting rid of existing junk: lasers in space, balls of aerogel to capture stuff, blowing up large chunks of junk. For what it's worth, the exploding method that you mentioned discussed only conducitng such methods at low altitudes which actually does work really well. However, it still leaves a lot of unaddressed crud in the higher LEO bands (like the one the ISS is in). The aerogel glob discussion was also an interesting one, but as the article addressed, aerogel can only really handle tiny stuff like paint chips. The lasers in space is probably the most effective solution, but costs so much in terms of energy generation that it is still a ways off in any large scale deployment.

    So what else did the article discuss? Well it mentioned the Kessler effect, which has nothing to do with dealing with space junk, but is just a model used to describe space junk. It mentioned that NASA is now putting more efforts into tracking space junk. This is important, of course, but doesn't qualify as a method for removing it or handling it (excepting the very indirect means of simply avoiding it). Then it talks about shielding spacecraft from space junk. This, of course, is necessary and current practice, but no amount of shielding (presently) will protect you from detached thermal blankets or burnt out Delta stages.

    All in all, this article just seemed like a disorganized, loosely-themed, terse ramble. I usually expect better from Discover but was severely disappointed in this particular release.
  • Re:Lasers... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:21PM (#33428728) Homepage Journal
    You know, I always wanted to talk to that guy for the exact reason you posted. I thought it would be a great university project for some aerospace engineering students to team up with this guy and build a small satellite (~500 kg) that used some combination of high-load capacitors, trickle charge electronics, solar cells, and his laser-tracking technology to basically float around Earth for awhile in a particularly polluted altitude band and just try zapping what ~10 cm pieces of space junk they could find. It would be a great effort for the students, and would act as a wonderful proof-of-concept demonstrator to the big players in the space industry.
  • Simple is Better (Score:3, Interesting)

    by YetAnotherBob (988800) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:38PM (#33428940)

    A simple solution might be to send up a sounding rocket to the altitude where a typical debris cloud is and just release a cloud of nitrogen gas. the cloud will fall soon into the atmosphere, the sounding rocket will too. the debris field will have a short time in a very low density gas cloud, and drop in it's orbit. Normal decay will then reduce the overall problem.

    Presumably, the AF knows where the debris is. Look for any clusters. Publish where and when it is going to be taken out. Unless someone objects, with a why, then do it. Probably find out who owns a lot of the back satellites that way.

    Begin to get rid of the litter. We won't finish until after we start. Right now, there is no cleanup.

    Maybe a first test run, then, when we can predict the outcome, a regular program of removal.

  • Re:Lasers... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @02:40PM (#33428976) Homepage

    > ...a wonderful proof-of-concept demonstrator...

    What concept do you think it would prove? "Hitting stuff with a laser" is not very hard and has been demonstrated many times, even in space.

  • by IrquiM (471313) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:10PM (#33429298) Homepage
    Apart from the danger of monopoly and people being left outside? Nope
  • Re:Lasers... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:11PM (#33429308) Homepage Journal
    Something along the lines of: "hitting stuff with a laser, in space, on a shoestring (university) budget, on a small, COTs-derived, simple vehicle."

    That's a very different proof than "hitting something with a laser in space."
  • by John Hasler (414242) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @03:34PM (#33429612) Homepage

    We've already spent billions getting it up there, why not recycle it? Create a recycling station in orbit.

    Every bit of trash is in a different orbit. It takes expensive fuel to change orbits. Collecting it all in one place would cost more than simply launching the same amount of stuff from the surface.

  • Re:Hit or Miss (Score:2, Interesting)

    by izomiac (815208) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:24PM (#33430160) Homepage

    On the other hand, on of Discover's pages was about blowing up the debris...this makes sense, until you really think about it. The problem is that when you blow up something, it makes a huge number of new pieces, with all sorts of different velocities and orbits.

    Most problems with lasers can be solved by higher power lasers. Just increase the power output and decrease the delivery time until you can turn any debris you target completely into gas or plasma. For larger objects, target a non-rotating point so it'll turn to gas and push the object out of orbit.

  • Re:Lasers... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @04:52PM (#33430438) Homepage Journal

    Having something that can do all that with enough power to actually be useful, able to do it over and over again without running out of consumables, and do that on a sane budget-that's tricky.

    Agreed. This is precisely what makes it an interesting and worthwhile engineering project to work on.

  • Re:Hit or Miss (Score:2, Interesting)

    by FinalMidnight (652617) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @07:07PM (#33431424)

    I wonder at the effectiveness of putting a very large focusable solar reflector in a high orbit, perhaps at LaGrange point 1. Such a solar sail could be used to give thrust to satellites equipped with a sail, or even large bits of space junk. Obviously it wouldn't give much Delta V to junk, but it might give some, and it would be essentially free. Junk in high orbits takes hundreds or thousands of years to de-orbit, and any means of reducing the velocity of said junk would drastically reduce that time. Additionally, with a variable focus the mirror might be pointed at solar cells of existing satellites, which could improve the thrust gained from Ion Drives, assuming enough reaction mass remains to take advantage of the extra watts.

    Idle musings. Feel free to shoot me down.

  • Totally Lunatic Idea (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jman.org (953199) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:43AM (#33433938) Homepage
    I hear folks on the moon are looking for raw materials. Why not just build a recycling center there? We've already expended energy getting all that stuff out of the gravity well, would make sense to help build up our Lunar presence with no-longer-needed materials hanging around in orbit.

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