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Swiss To Build Orbital Cleaning Satellite 147

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the so-that's-what-happens-to-s.o.l dept.
garyebickford writes "As The ETH Lausanne says: 'The proliferation of debris orbiting the Earth – primarily jettisoned rocket and satellite components – is an increasingly pressing problem for spacecraft, and it can generate huge costs. To combat this scourge, the Swiss Space Center at EPFL is announcing today the launch of CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first installment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris.' This looks like a reasonable method, although I think that at some future point it might be useful to just put at least the smaller stuff in a higher 'parking orbit' for later destruction or recycling. This way you wouldn't lose one vacuum cleaner for each satellite retrieved. And much later down the road, it might be useful to collect bigger units — expended boosters, for example — as raw materials and/or containers. The cost of getting the mass into space has already been spent. I optimistically foresee a future where much of the stuff sent into orbital space has a recycling function built into the design."
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Swiss To Build Orbital Cleaning Satellite

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  • Most of this debris isn't sitting still, It's moving at thousands of MPH. How do you plan to catch something moving that fast without destroying the collector?
    • by Aladrin (926209)

      The collector will be orbiting, too.

      • The collector will be orbiting, too.

        So instead of being like catching a bullet with a baseball mitt, it's like catching a bullet by shooting another bullet at it.

        • by na1led (1030470) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:39PM (#39047585)
          That's not a very effecient way to collect debris, if you have to expend fuel just to catch up to it. It seems like there would be a better solution, like using lasers to push the debris out of orbit into space.
          • by john82 (68332)

            That's not a very effecient way to collect debris...

            Nor is the notion that you can clean up such a vast volume of space with a small capsule. Kind of like thinking you can clean up the entire North American interstate system with a single street sweeper.

          • by Ichijo (607641)

            That's not a very effecient way to collect debris, if you have to expend fuel just to catch up to it.

            Or you could grab it while it's passing you.

          • They aren't solving (quite) the same problem as you are. This scheme is to collect entire satellites, and prevent them from becoming debris over time. It works because you can get a really large amount of debris-to-be in one go.

            Yes, with current technology, this would probably be a hopelessly expensive way of deorbiting lost gloves, bolts and pocket watches.

    • by Arrepiadd (688829)

      There's this thing called relative speed... (you can imagine the rest, right?)

    • by kimvette (919543) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:37PM (#39047561) Homepage Journal

      We are currently orbiting the galactic core at 220 km/s and around the sun at 30 km/s and yet you can catch a baseball tossed to you, unless you're a total klutz, right? If you are riding in a bus, walking toward the back, and a passenger in the back throws a cellphone to you, you can catch it, right? Even though if the bus is traveling at 65mph relative to the street, and the cellphone 35mph relative to the bus floor (or 100mph relative to the street)

      Motion is relative. Speed is relative.

      The satellite will not be motionless relative to the junk.

      Think about it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        We are currently orbiting the galactic core at 220 km/s and around the sun at 30 km/s and yet you...

        Can you please convert this to ft/s for us Americans?

        • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @03:30PM (#39048441) Homepage

          For us Americans, it's "purdy darned fast". It's faster than NASCAR, and faster than a shotgun shell, by a lot.

          Also, it's about 136 miles per second. In each second, that's the distance of two hours of driving at most states' speed limits, one hour of driving in New Mexico (because after an hour of driving in New Mexico, any still-sane human has to stop anyway), and about 30 hours of "driving" through New York City traffic.

        • We are currently orbiting the galactic core at 220 km/s and around the sun at 30 km/s and yet you...

          Can you please convert this to ft/s for us Americans?

          Sorry. It's not the post that needs fixing. It's the Americans.

      • Even though if the bus is traveling at 65mph relative to the street

        I was in full agreement until this comment. Everyone knows buses never go over 35mph... 35mph tops- and then only in the fast lane whilst overtaking a bus going 34.5mph.

        The only way a bus would travel 65mph is if you pushed it off a cliff.

      • by na1led (1030470)
        You're analogy is incorrect. The debris floating in orbit does not all follow the same exact path and motion, some of the debris have wild elliptical orbits. The space station has been damaged in the past by floating debris traveling faster than the speed of sound. It's like trying to land a space craft on an asteroid vs. a rock here on earth. In space it takes very precise calculations and movements to synchronize with another moving object. You've been watching too many movies. And incase you didn't know,
    • by dargaud (518470)
      That's what I'm wondering: the delta-V to go from one target to the next must be huge, even if you optimize your orbit changes. You probably need to take a huge amount of fuel to catch only a few tens of targets. And this fuel turns into gas, also following the same orbit. I wonder if it has any influence on active satellites or if it diffuses away too quickly.
    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Most of this debris isn't sitting still, It's moving at thousands of MPH. How do you plan to catch something moving that fast without destroying the collector?

      Employ people on the ground to map out the best path to collect as much rubbish as possible with the fuel available - chose best path, least number of turns, accellerations and so on.

      Best. Game. EVER!

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      How do you manage to catch a baseball when the earth is orbiting so fast, the solar system is moving through the galaxy so fast, the galaxy is moving so fast, the universe is expanding, etc?
    • Most of this debris isn't sitting still, It's moving at thousands of MPH. How do you plan to catch something moving that fast without destroying the collector?

      A collector could be sacrificial, designed to just sit there and take the hits. As long as it captures the debris and does not itself spall and generate more debris. A loose analogy would be a block of ballistic gelatin capturing a bullet as the bullet fragments.

      • At the kinds of velocities a collector/debris collision would occur, the term is not so much "spalling", but "vapourizing".
    • Most of what I've read about uses techniques similar to those we use to catch bullets on Earth. Ever been to a firing range? Those sandbags at the back do a great job of catching all the bullets, we just need to launch enough sandbags up there to catch them all.

      (I've oversimplified a little there, but that's the basic theory.)

    • I dunno, I guess I could start by reading the article. (It has pictures too)
  • by avgjoe62 (558860) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:10PM (#39047117)

    I mean, the stereotype of them being neat and orderly was not far off, at least from looking at their towns and cities. Some of the cleanest urban areas I've ever seen. I can see them wanting to clean up outer space too.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:30PM (#39047443)

      If you want to explain this based on the Swiss sterotypes, then the one you really should be using is more allong the line: the Swiss discovered that the debris had not filled proper paperwork to be in the orbit that it was in, so they are sending up a clerk to take care of things.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        To be honest, I had though of both of these (the neatness first), but didn't post.

        Well played, both of you.

        Mod parent and GP up!

      • by Teun (17872)
        Being Swiss they'd hire a foreigner to do the dirty part.
    • by formfeed (703859)

      Yes. I started laughing when I read the headline. No,no,no, the Swiss, a cleaning satellite. Can you do anything more hilarious to reinforce stereotypes?!

      And for all who didn't see the pun: Kishon about Swiss cleanliness [ephraimkishon.de]

  • Coming from the swiss, that is just hilarious [blogspot.com]
    • by Ocker3 (1232550)
      Now That's a classic use of cartoon imagery. We should start a new meme "Oblig-Asterix"
  • Awwwwww! I was saving all that debris to build a space fort. Back to my damn treehouse.
  • by Quirkz (1206400) <rossNO@SPAMquirkz.com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:15PM (#39047185) Homepage
    I hope this cleaning satellite is a giant wad of bubblegum with a couple of boosters attached to it. It'll just float around getting in the way of the little stuff, all of which will stick to the bubblegum. We all know how well gum picks up little bits of metal like the keys to a jail door, so it should be perfect for satellite debris.
    • Even though you are joking- I wonder if anyone ever has considered that approach.

      Not Bubblegum- but if there is a way to trap and stick to micro-pieces in space traveling at such high velocities without being ripped to shreds? Is a trash mopping satellite with a super-bubblegum-like property infeasible? Obviously- that would be for the micro-trash.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      I've been proposing gelatinous cubes in space for years. A big cube made of airgel. It won't get the bigger pieces (which the satellite in TFA will), but it'll catch all the little paint flecks and specks of metal and insulation which are too small to track. The cube should be big enough and the airgel material dense enough to capture debris, but not dense enough to shatter on impact (gradual deceleration). And due to its large size, eventually atmospheric drag will cause it to burn up on re-entry.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Shades of Quark [wikipedia.org]?

  • Hmm, sounds like Salvage 1 [imdb.com] is about to become reality...
    • Sometimes, I'll have an inspired idea for a revolutionary product. At that point, I think about how to market it. Then I figure out what the most awesome domain name would be for that product. I then look it up in WHOIS, and I find it's already registered. I go to the website, and find it's my awesome idea, already for sale.

      At this point, I usually just buy one if I need it, happy I don't have to do the R&D.

      Moral of the story : ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is 98% of everything.

  • by Maury Markowitz (452832) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:20PM (#39047271) Homepage

    "although I think that at some future point it might be useful to just put at least the smaller stuff in a higher 'parking orbit' for later destruction or recycling. This way you wouldn't lose one vacuum cleaner for each satellite retrieved. And much later down the road, it might be useful to collect bigger units — expended boosters, for example — as raw materials and/or containers"

    I don't think you understand the issue. These debris are largely small parts from paint flakes to metal needles. The amount of larger "useful" material is small. Moreover, it's in different orbits. You'd spend more fuel running around getting them than you would save just launching up new mass.

    • by rickb928 (945187)

      Plus 'parking' it in a higher orbit will jsut cost more fuel to both send it up there, and go and get it later.

      No that clever. How about gathering and de-orbiting it like sensible people do.

      Oh, wait...

  • Space Dustman
  • by jimbolauski (882977) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:32PM (#39047483) Journal
    The problem with recycling in space is that machines must be brought up into space to harvest the materials, then other machines would be needed to manufacture items using the recycled objects. Just think of a mother board yes you can get the elements back but creating a new processor takes very specialized machinery that needs upgrading every 5 years or so. For this to even be remotely possible there would all ready have to be a manufacturing facility in space, the up front cost to achieve something like this are hard to fathom and it probably would not be economically feasible to achieve due to the need to upgrade manufacturing facilities to keep pace with facilities on earth.
    • by Sentrion (964745) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @03:09PM (#39048099)

      The problem with recycling in space is that machines must be brought up into space to harvest the materials, then other machines would be needed to manufacture items using the recycled objects. Just think of a mother board yes you can get the elements back but creating a new processor takes very specialized machinery that needs upgrading every 5 years or so. For this to even be remotely possible there would all ready have to be a manufacturing facility in space, the up front cost to achieve something like this are hard to fathom and it probably would not be economically feasible to achieve due to the need to upgrade manufacturing facilities to keep pace with facilities on earth.

      You forgot the China factor. Now that China has entered the space race, expensive and complicated machines will not be necessary to recycle the space material. Chinese laborers will process the debris manually at a cost savings of 10 to 1. Material too complicated to be processed by hand, such as motherboards, will simply be re-purposed, such as to serve as wall tiles for the new orbiting shanty towns that will house the workers. I think Foxconn is already bidding on the contract. As safety of the workers will not be a concern, the budget for the entire program will be only a fraction of a single NASA launch.

  • to clean up space and restore order.
    • To seek out new junk and trash constellations, to boldly clean where no man has cleaned before...

  • Yeah, this idea already exists as an anime:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetes [wikipedia.org]
  • by wisebabo (638845) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @02:59PM (#39047925) Journal

    Please correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Katamari that weird video game where you roll up a bigger and bigger ball of stuff until you end up absorbing everything?

    Well, I've proposed in the past of using aerogels as a giant, low mass "sponge" to mop up orbital debris. The big problem is that nobody has demonstrated a way of manufacturing the stuff, in space, and certainly not without using a lot of the (heavy) supercritical fluid it takes to do it on earth. Since it is too bulky to launch from earth already made, this idea remains in the realm of science fiction.

    Anyway, here's a different take on this idea. Perhaps, this Swiss (and other) probes could be launched with the following program in mind. First, they should go after the biggest piece of debris they can find, a spent upper stage would be just fine. Then, using a highly efficient ion engine, they should (slowly) change the orbit of the upper stage so that it will hit other pieces of space debris in as close to head-on collisions as possible. Wham!

    While I hardly expect the pieces to stick together like in the video game, the resultant collision should slow down any resulting fragments from the space debris (and the upper stage battering ram) so they will de-orbit quickly. When, after many collisions, the battering ram has been whittled down to no longer be effective, the probe should push it so it de-orbits quickly and goes off to find another. In this way, over a ((very) long) period of time this one probe can clean up a lot of space debris! Think Wall-E in space.

    Of course the probe will have to be specially designed to do this task. It'll need a LOT of propellent, even with an ultra-efficient ion engine you're talking about significant delta-vee of large masses. Big engines would help too because otherwise it'll take a LONG time to change these orbits. A good grappling mechanism and thrusters (ion again?) will be required to stop the upper stage from spinning. Also, even though it'll use the upper stage as a battering ram, it might need to have its own armoring; there will doubtless be scattered hypervelocity fragments. (Big solar panels for the probe are pretty vulnerable, a small reactor or even laser power from the ground might be needed for the power hungry ion drives). Finally, some of the most advanced anti-sat/anti-ballistic targeting technology will be needed to hit the debris; you're still hitting a bullet with a (big) bullet. At least the space debris is unlikely to be taking any evasive maneuvers!

    What's critical of course is that the probe/battering ram hits the space debris as HEAD-ON as possible, this is to rob the debris (and its fragments) of as much orbital momentum as possible so that they almost literally "fall out of the sky". Otherwise you'll potentially end up with a situation like when the defunct Rusian sat hit the Iridium satellite; much MORE debris was created. As for the probe/battering ram, of course it will lose orbital momentum during each collision, the difference is that it can regain it with its ion-drive (better not hit something too big!).

    • Please correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Katamari that weird video game where you roll up a bigger and bigger ball of stuff until you end up absorbing everything?

      Yes it is. A big glorious ball. A big glorious beautiful ball to turn into a star to decorate the sky which looks much too plain. Start rolling young prince. And please ignore my crotch bulge.

  • Leave it to the super-orderly Swiss to decide that their big contribution to satellites will be to keep everyone else's neat and tidy.

  • got the whole new meaning!
  • Too complicated... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dpilot (134227) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @03:03PM (#39048001) Homepage Journal

    Try the simple way. How about a fairly high sub-orbital launch of a bunch of water, perhaps with an explosive device to disperse it.

    The water is below orbital velocity, even with any velocity added by the explosion. Ditto for the container the water was in. In short order you have a giant cloud of water vapor. Everything flying through that cloud loses a little velocity from collisions with the vapor. A little more time and the water and it's original container fall back to Earth. A little "downrange velocity" would increase the dwell time for the water vapor to stay in orbit, yet keep it all suborbital.

    Energetically suborbital launches are a heck of a lot easier than orbital ones, even if a little downrange velocity is added. (Don't forget the first 1000mph is free.)

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      It still takes quite a bit of energy to send water up there, and water is about as gentle as buckshot when you're talking about orbital velocities. If you want gentle you need something like aerogel.

      I keep thinking that a huge aerogel mass in orbit might be more effective. It would stay up there much longer and collect more junk, but it would still de-orbit over a period of days or weeks due to its high surface area compared to mass.

      The trick with any of this stuff is not messing with functional satellite

  • Will handle the problem, expanding the atmosphere sufficiently to erode the orbits and burn the debris. I expect Fox will take credit.

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @03:24PM (#39048349)

    It will probably have a fold-out corkscrew.

  • Well, all the stuff is up there; and yes, it needs to get collected some how. So why not:

    1. Collect it into a massive space junk yard that can be managed.
    2. Put up a refinery to take in the materials from the space junk yard and produce useful raw materials
    3. Use the useful raw materials to (a) maintain the refinery, and (b) build additional stuff in space.

    After all, wouldn't that be cheaper than bringing it down to earth and having to resend all the required materials up there again whenever we nee
  • That's what they really need. A large tacky, ball of glue that stays sticky in a vacuum. Send it up and into the path of multiple satelites, let it grab them then deorbit the whole junky mess.

    Think Katamari Damacy IN SPACE!

  • Could be a great way to scoop up abandoned bits of technology and analyze them and/or profit from them...

  • by Sentrion (964745) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @04:12PM (#39049237)

    Clearly this is an act of aggression of the Swiss as an insult to the pioneers of space travel, Russia and USA, and to undermine the cooperation between Russia and USA to install more facilities in space. But perhaps the real and treacherous purpose of this mission is to acquire military technology from the Eastern and Western powers to use for their own insidious plan to spread the concept of peace and neutrality throughout the world. The Swiss cannot be trusted to launch even one rocket into space. They may even go as far as to capture defunct commercial satellites to violate and exploit the intellectual property and trade secrets developed by private space faring corporations. This unjust enrichment cannot be allowed to stand!

    Perhaps you say I am a shrill and making mountains out of mole-hills, but then answer this: Why does Switzerland, even today, still enforce compulsory military service for males 19 years of age and older? Why does a neutral "non-aggressive" nation have an army so large that during the 20th century it had the second largest armed force per capita after the Israeli Defence Forces? Why would a nation of peaceful citizens REQUIRE their soldiers to keep their assault rifles IN THEIR HOMES like red-necks from Texas? Why does the Swiss military maintain the Onyx intelligence gathering system for spying on both civil and military communications, such as telephone, fax or Internet traffic, carried by satellite? Why do Swiss building codes require radiation and blast shelters, and why does every family or rental agency have to pay a replacement tax to support these shelters, or alternatively own a personal shelter in their place of residence? Why does Switzerland claim to be a "neutral" country when they engage in "peace keeping" operations? Why is "the peaceful coexistence of nations" one of the five goals of Swiss foreign policy when, for such a small country, they are the 13th largest arms exporter in the world, including some of the finest weapons ever made?

    Don't believe what I'm saying? It's all here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_army [wikipedia.org]

    • Some of your points about "peacekeeping" are good, but this:

      Why does Switzerland, even today, still enforce compulsory military service for males 19 years of age and older? Why does a neutral "non-aggressive" nation have an army so large that during the 20th century it had the second largest armed force per capita after the Israeli Defence Forces? Why would a nation of peaceful citizens REQUIRE their soldiers to keep their assault rifles IN THEIR HOMES like red-necks from Texas?

      By having a completely badass defense* force, they have a lot less need to intervene in their neighbors' affairs. It's nonzero as you point out, but they're not doing bad on the whole.

      * actually defense, not some Orwellian Department of Defense

  • This rate of change in the janitorial industry is unprecedented.
  • So this doesn't strike anyone as odd? We here in the US have to rationalize everything in terms of money. We don't even lift a finger anymore unless it pays off in the long run as it's unjustifiable, yet the Swiss are going to be spending billions to clean up other peoples messes in outer space? We can't even get most people to do that here in the US without adding a price tag to it.

    Seriously, just take a step back and look at this for a moment.
  • Warsaw University of Science and Technology has already launched an experimental satellite to check for feasibility of faster debris deorbiting. It has a deployable tail that significantly reduces (via drag) orbiting time.

    http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/PW_Sat_Poland_first_satellite_launched_into_orbit_999.html [spacedaily.com]

    You can imagine this technology used for cleaning space, either by using such mechanisms on new satellites to burn them faster when no longer needed, or attach them (tbd how) to existing debris.

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