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Space Science

Boeing Proposes Using Gas Clouds To Bring Down Orbital Debris 147

Posted by Soulskill
from the anti-space-station-weaponry dept.
cylonlover writes "Boeing has filed a patent application for a method of disposing of dead satellites and other debris orbiting the earth by hitting them with a puff of gas. The method, which is still at the conceptual stage, is designed to slow down satellites, forcing them to re-enter the atmosphere without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of. The idea is to send a small satellite into orbit containing a gas generator. This generator can be a tank of cryogenic gas, such as xenon or krypton, or a device designed to vaporize a heavy metal or some relatively heavy elements like fluorine, chlorine, bromine, or iodine. This gas would be released as a cloud in the same orbit as the debris, but traveling in the opposite direction." Clever of them to patent this, since knock-off space-junk removal systems are in such high demand.
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Boeing Proposes Using Gas Clouds To Bring Down Orbital Debris

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:08PM (#41561111)

    A space fart!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:13PM (#41561173)

    It's an apparently wholly new and unique method for doing something in the physical world. Why would it make them evil to patent that?

    • by Gonoff (88518)

      Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used. Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them. This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas until very recently.
      Everything else had been patented.

      If you want something to catch on, think "IBM Compatible" or WWW. Neither of those 2 ideas were patented and they seem to have been pretty widely adopten and further developed.

      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:45PM (#41561605)

        Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used.

        Boeing is not a patent troll. They actually make stuff. The obvious customer for this is NASA and other space agencies, and Boeing is a contractor. If they have the patent, they are the obvious choice as the contractor.

        Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them.

        Please don't use weasel words to make insinuations that you can't back up with evidence. Patents are public records. Can you point to a single case of this actually happening?

        • by NoKaOi (1415755)

          Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used.

          Boeing is not a patent troll. They actually make stuff. The obvious customer for this is NASA and other space agencies, and Boeing is a contractor. If they have the patent, they are the obvious choice as the contractor.

          It also has the advantage of preventing an actual patent troll from getting a patent on it first, and if Boeing spends tons of money on R&D to get the details right, then nobody can copy their solution and underbid them, so it protects Boeing's investment. This is exactly what patents are meant for. It seems everyone is so allergic to the idea of patents after all the patent troll stories we read, people forget that patents actually do have a purpose other than to make lawyers lots of money.

      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        If you want something to catch on, think "IBM Compatible" or WWW. Neither of those 2 ideas were patented and they seem to have been pretty widely adopten and further developed.

        I dunno. Ethernet is patented. As is Wi-Fi. And they seem to have caught on. Cellphones are horrendously heavily patented since their inception, and they seem pretty popular. Heck, MP3s are patented to the hilt and back, too.

        Many of the early PCs like the Apple II were completely open - they did have schematics and source code listing

      • by mccrew (62494)

        Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used. Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them. This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas until very recently..

        First, I'd like to see a citation for your "reputed" claim.

        Second, the reason why we have not had alternatives for gas guzzlers is not for lack of trying. It's because the alternatives are not competitive from a technical or economic standpoint, neither of which are a direct result of being held back by hostile patent holders.

      • by es330td (964170)

        Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them.This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas (sic) until very recently.

        Do you really believe this? If some kind of magical additive or technology existed that would allow practical cars to get 100 mpg do you really think the Chinese or Soviet Russians, who have shown our IP claims mean nothing to them, would choose to not utilize it and tell the patent holder "fine, take us to court.?"

        I do not think it is logically consistent to honestly believe that TPTB can successfully suppress markedly superior technology to maintain the status quo to the level of no other country adopti

    • The evil would lie in how it's enforced.

      Unless they've already implemented it, it's possible that their solution doesn't work as specified in the patent. Then if somebody else comes along with a similar idea but different implementation (for example, maybe a different temperature or density of the gas) that actually works, Boeing can sue them.

      The patent system has degenerated into protecting the results rather than the specific implementations, so somebody can put some words on paper for something that doe

    • It's an apparently wholly new and unique method for doing something in the physical world. Why would it make them evil to patent that?

      Because It's not really [wsj.com]all that unique [arxiv.org]

      Why are the links so recent? Because after that collision 2 years ago they put out a request for people to think about this problem.

    • by bertok (226922) on Friday October 05, 2012 @06:31PM (#41564475)

      Because it didn't require research or investment to come up with it, and hence doesn't warrant a temporary monopoly enforced by the government.

      Using diffuse gases to slow orbiting vehicles is common, it's called aerobraking. Doing it with artificially created puffs of gas isn't exactly a new or unique idea either. I guarantee you Boeing didn't wasn't the first to come up with it, they were just the first to patent it. They can get away with that, because there's no prior art -- not because it had been impossible for others to come up with it before -- but simply because there has been no need for it. No market = no prior art. Now that the problem is starting to get worse, there's going to be a market soon. Boeing is just being anti-competitive by rushing to patent obvious stuff that just didn't need to be used before.

      Patents are (theoretically) for protecting the fruits of expensive novel research, not for trivial, handwavy ideas that suddenly have a market. This is why we're all so pissed off with all the patents along the lines of "existing idea but now with computers", which are far too common. Those ideas would have been impossible decades ago not for a lack of research, but a lack of a market. Before ubiquitous computers, there was no profitable way to "add computers" to an existing method or process. It's not research that enabled these new patents, but changing market realities.

      Lets say Boeing starts actually developing these gas-based systems, but finds that the gas tank nozzle is clogged because of the cryogenic temperatures causing trace gases like CO2 freezing inside the valve and blocking it. Compared to cold-gas reaction control systems, their satellite may need a very slow gas release rate, and hence a narrow nozzle, so this could actually be a big problem. They may want a passive system to avoid the need for complex, heavy, and failure-prone active heating systems. Lets say one of their engineers develops a special curved shape for the nozzle that accelerates the expanding gases in such a way as to prevent frozen particles from adhering to the walls. This might require complex mathematics, extensive numerical simulations, and lots of engineering tests in vacuum chambers with expensive gases. The result would be trivial to copy, but had needed expensive research into a wholly new concept. That is something that is worthy of patent protection.

      • by khallow (566160)

        Using diffuse gases to slow orbiting vehicles is common, it's called aerobraking.

        I gather Boeing isn't patenting aerobraking, but instead a novel way to deliver those gases. They also apparently have done research on designs for delivering such gases and for the effects of delivery.

        Lets say Boeing starts actually developing these gas-based systems, but finds that the gas tank nozzle is clogged because of the cryogenic temperatures causing trace gases like CO2 freezing inside the valve and blocking it.

        Let's not, since that is an easy problem to overcome, by removing the trace gases in exactly the way they're alleged to cause problems (that is, by freezing them out). A serious application would no doubt have further opportunity for patents.

  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:16PM (#41561213)

    What about the increased amounts of persistent drag that these clouds will present to later satelite deployments? Spraying the gas does not mean it magically disappears after it has done its job. While inside the roche limit, the gas clouds will eventually (after thousands of years) fall back into the atmosphere, the cloud doesn't magically vanish after being sprayed, and widespread use of the technology would make it radically difficult to orbit new satelites.

    If used outside the roche limit, the clouds become persistent!

    I don't think there is much debris needing deorbited outside the roche, but with politicians and corporations at the helm, you can't be too careful.

    • by Baloroth (2370816) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:19PM (#41561261)

      If the gas is sprayed at less-than-orbital velocities, it'd just fall to Earth almost immediately. Boeing in fact addresses that:

      8. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created at a density and temperature to dissipate after creation and fall into the atmosphere.

      • by wierd_w (1375923)

        "Almost immediately" in what respect? That the orbit of the cloud is very unstable, and begins spiraling in immediately, or that it is fired directly at the earth?

        See, as deorbiting objects descend the gravity well, they speed up and compress. Especially gasses.

        Widespread deployment of such a tech would result in the formation of a thin planetary ring of vapor. Rotational effects would channel the gasses into the ecliptic plane of earth's rotation, where slow deorbiting would compress the gasses as they spi

        • by gblackwo (1087063)
          I'll trade space debris for a non-permanent layer of gas.
        • by Baloroth (2370816) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:46PM (#41561619)

          According to the patent application, "within second" for extremely LEO (100 km) and "tens of second" for slightly higher orbits (~400km). It'll depend on the exact application, but the proposal makes it sound like they intend the gas to be "stationary" relative to the Earth, so it'll be in free fall, basically. Other situations they propose put it at ~1km/s, where it will de-orbit rather quickly.

          It is very very unlikely to cause issues. After all, we already spray gases around in orbit, it's the single method we have of propulsion, and I've never actually seen a single person worry that it will create long-term problems (although maybe it could, I very much doubt it).

          Besides, it's a lot easier to deal with transient gas clouds slowing orbits than it is with ramming into shards of metal at 10km/s or more. Shards of metal with explosives in it, in (rare) cases of unburnt propellant.

      • by aurizon (122550)

        At orbital height the mean free path of gas atoms and molecules is large, the gas released will expand at very high speed and unless released with great precision right in the path milliseconds before impact it will have dissipated and be useless. The precision needed for this is comparable to destroying missiles by collision.
        A better way would be to counter orbit a device that would eject a block of something bulky with a high vapor pressure, say an ice cube that you could steer with enough precision to i

    • this may be considered a "non-problem" since the gas cloud might add 00.003% to the drag in orbit but it would be a lot easier on the stuff we WANT in orbit as apposed to several kilos/tons of random Hard Objects. (hmm bonus idea use a gas that will explode or otherwise create a "shockwave")

      • by wierd_w (1375923)

        You are assuming that the drag would be constant, which would make it easy to correct for.

        A gas disc on the ecliptic would be like firing a bullet through may layers of seperated tissue paper. The tissue represents almost no resistance to the bullet, but after repeated penetrations, the effect is cumulative.

        This is because few satelites live in the ecliptic plane of earth's rotation. Only geosyncronous satelites do that. Most satelites are not geosyncronous, and would regularly cross the gas disc. This mean

    • by gr8_phk (621180)

      What about the increased amounts of persistent drag that these clouds will present to later satelite deployments? Spraying the gas does not mean it magically disappears after it has done its job.

      I had the same thought, but would it get ionized and then directed to the poles where it becomes part of the northern lights? Someone should patent that variation of the concept quick!

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      Satellites have their own thrusters for orbital correction maneouvers. They would have to bring more fuel with them, but it's still better than getting hit by space junk.

  • ...sandcasters!

  • Not really. Although there is 'high demand' for technology to solve this problem, the only customer is the government. And the government has unrestricted use of any patent it wants. Including subcontracting the equipment and execution of the task to any subcontractor it desires.

  • be safer, cheaper and just as effective? Assuming each balloon decayed (i.e. oriented itself with orifice pointing directly away from Earth and releasing a puff) within a set period so as not to continue to interfere with other traffic.

    • by admdrew (782761)
      That sounds cool, I wonder if they'd also consider something like that. The immediate downside I can think of, though, is that it may be a lot harder to reliably position those balloons, compared with a space object with its own directed propulsion.
      • You might be right about the positioning, but you wouldn't need too many of them if you know where the satellite was going to be. The reason I suggested this is that nitrogen is a lot cheaper and more abundant, so you might actually make the balloon bigger. Easier targeting and all that.

        • by admdrew (782761)
          Yeah it definitely sounds worth exploring. Sooo, basically I'm expecting another /. article announcing gestalt_n_pepper's "balloon of death" patent application shortly.
  • ...might be another man's satellite.

    My bet is that the first implementation of this is an anti-satellite weapon.

  • by Nemyst (1383049) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:28PM (#41561379) Homepage

    Please do correct me if I am wrong, but this reads like a patent application that contains a novel, concrete implementation of an idea that isn't necessarily obvious to one skilled in the art. That is what patents are supposed to protect, and I have to say I have no problem with that.

    It's perhaps the first /. post in a long time that contains a patent that respects both the spirit and the letter of what a patent is supposed to be. It also sounds fairly ingenious and very interesting considering the possibilities, so props to Boeing.

    • by admdrew (782761)
      Agreed. Doing stuff (reliably) in space is very tough and requires some really smart people.
      • Yeah, but that just means that it has to be non-obvious to a much, much smarter group of people.

    • While I'm not a huge fan of patents in general, I would have to agree. This one actually makes sense as a patent.
    • by jmerlin (1010641)
      I'm not opposed to the patent, but I am opposed to the enumeration of claims that the laws of physics require a person to do in order to implement any such device (even a non-infringing device). Over-broad claims are just as stupid as over-broad patents. They may never result in someone being sued for infringement, but there's no reason they should be in the patent at all. One of the claims is that objects will fall to earth because the collision of the debris with matter will cause its orbital decay to
    • by mbstone (457308)

      Non-obvious? You're kidding, right? I have a can of Blow-It-Out® right here on my test bench. Gets the cruft out of those pesky keyboards.

  • This is such an obvious idea that it isn't right that it should be patentable. There are only a few ways of slowing an orbiting object down so that it de-orbits. The way nature does it is by putting gas in the way, called the atmosphere.

    • by Progman3K (515744)

      This is such an obvious idea that it isn't right that it should be patentable. There are only a few ways of slowing an orbiting object down so that it de-orbits. The way nature does it is by putting gas in the way, called the atmosphere.

      Stop bringing common-sense into this, dammit!

  • Newton claims prior art.
  • by jmerlin (1010641) on Friday October 05, 2012 @01:32PM (#41561429)

    4. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is relatively static and collides with orbital debris and slows orbital motion of the debris.

    So basically we're claiming to patent inelastic collisions? So pretty much ANYTHING bringing something out of orbit by physically altering its orbit (which is almost always the result of an inelastic collision) will violate this claim. Broad much?

    5. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud travels in a countering trajectory to the space debris.

    So basically we're claiming to patent a collision between two bodies traveling in opposing trajectories? .. seriously? Yeah, I was totally planning on knocking debris out of space by throwing rocks at it in the same direction it's moving!

    6. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud altitude is between 100 km and 400 km.

    So basically we're claiming to patent clouds between 100 and 400 km above Earth's surface? Because someone can avoid violating this by.. you know.. ignoring the debris between 100km and 400km. Right?

    7. The method of claim 1, wherein different cleanup zones about Earth are targeted, and a cloud is formed at each zone.

    So basically we're claiming to patent clouds formed in different target zones? Is it possible to be any more vague?

    8. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created at a density and temperature to dissipate after creation and fall into the atmosphere.

    So your projectile that will collide with the debris will fall back into the atmosphere. So would just about any other projectile-based solution. It'd be pretty damn hard to hit an orbiting object with another object with enough velocity to knock the orbiting object into the atmosphere and ricochet the projectile out of orbit in excess of escape velocity.

    9. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created to have a shape of one of a sphere and a hemisphere.

    So basically we're claiming to patent spheres and hemispheres of gasses. Looks like a competitor will need to use rectangles, because this is the rounded-corners patent of gas clouds.

    But seriously. C'mon.

    • A few years back I "envisioned" sending up a shuttle like garbage truck to clean up orbiting space junk. Any company who violates my vision must unilaterally pay me, in perpetuity for any other idea, since I thought of it first. Thank you.

      And I do accept PayPal. :-)

    • by noahwh (1545231)

      You're ignoring where it says 'The method of claim 1, wherein' in each of those sentences.

      1. A method for removing space debris having a relatively low ballistic coefficient, the method comprising hastening orbital decay of the debris by creating a transient gaseous cloud at an altitude of at least 100 km above Earth, the cloud having a density sufficient to slow the debris so the debris falls into Earth's atmosphere.

      None of those claims are general patents on physical laws. They are all specific to a sate

      • Of course he's ignoring segments of the claims... You can't produce breathless hyperbole if you include all the facts.
        • by jmerlin (1010641)
          None of my statements are hyperbole. These claims are so general that any case brought for infringement will necessarily require that these claims be violated even if infringement has not occurred. These claims, therefore, are so broad as to be useless in the scope of the patent.
      • by jmerlin (1010641)

        I'm not ignoring it. These claims are so generic that anyone who was creating any similar system (in a non-infringing manner) would necessarily be required by the laws of physics to violate them, making the patent so broad that competitive innovation is literally impossible. It would be much like a car manufacturer (say, for sake of argument, the first ever) patenting a device that used a motor connected to a drive shaft in turn connected to 4 wheels which by virtue of friction propel the device forward.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      Given the patent trolling of the last decade, it's become clear that you have to patent everything you do, no matter how silly, simple, broad, or obvious. If you don't and someone else patents it, you could be sued for $billions. Even if you win in court, you'll still be out millions in legal fees. If you can avoid all that with a $10k patent application, it's a simple choice.
  • Given the cost of getting material up in space to start with, I'd rather see this 'space junk' mined / recycled / reused to build something else up in space, on the moon or somewhere else rather than bring it back down.

    • by Urza9814 (883915)

      Would probably cost more in money and energy to build, launch, and operate a vehicle to find, collect, and recycle all this debris than it would be worth. I believe we're talking about stuff the size of nuts and bolts moving at kilometers per _second_ in a sparse cloud surrounding the planet.

  • I recall a plan from waaaay back in the 1980's of equipping the space shuttle with a high pressure water nozzle. I forget the exact details of how it worked, but it was something like the water would turn into a stream of frozen water particles that would hit the debris, absorbing kinetic energy of the debris as it vaoprized...or some such shit.
    • by rrohbeck (944847)

      Agree. It sounds awfully familiar - not sure if it's from SF or "real" science.
      There's probably some very careful wording in there that makes it "novel" somehow.

  • Yes, it is. It means that if the US government decides to do this it or whoever wins the contract to do it for them will have to purchase a license from Boeing.

  • "Clever of them to patent this, since knock-off space-junk removal systems are in such high demand"

    If one does not think that the orbit around earth is going to be increasingly cluttered on is just not looking very far.

    It is sad on a supposed tech and science site for someone to suggest that the clutter will not become a problem.

    The refrain seems to be why patent anything that doesn't have immediate use.

    What a crock of shit.

  • It is cool. Might turn a satellite into a cloud of debris, not a slower solid satellite.
    But is it obvious, if you know astronomy, read manga, or just live in space for a while and try to stop debris with what you have on hand?

    1. From the DARPA zero robotics challenge, "RetroSPHERES satellites launched into a polar orbit to deploy micro dust clouds that can deorbit small pieces of space debris with high velocity collisions (ablation)."
      A "micro dust cloud" sounds similar to Boeing's cloud of heavy gas (a "nano d
  • by Jiro (131519)

    Xenon and krypton are rare and expensive, especially xenon, which is used in spacecraft ion engines. Using it for this purpose is a serious waste.

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