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Space

Space Junk 'Cleaning' Missions Urgently Needed 165

Posted by Soulskill
from the need-some-volunteer-space-garbagemen dept.
Following a conference on space debris, the European Space Agency has warned that the amount of space junk floating around in orbit is a problem that needs to be dealt with 'urgently.' They are calling for a number of test missions to examine different methods of controlling or removing the debris. "Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth’s changing climate some 20 years ago," said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the agency's Space Debris office. A couple years ago we discussed an idea for de-orbiting space junk by hitting it with a laser to change its momentum. An Australian company has now received funding from NASA and the Australian government to try just that. "We've been developing tracking systems using lasers for some years, so we can actually track very small objects with a laser rangefinder to very high accuracy. ... If you allow that velocity to change over a period of perhaps 24 hours, then you can get actually a 100-meter shift in the location of an object to deflect it from colliding with another space debris object." Other plans are in development as well, and there currently exists an international guideline saying that new hardware must de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere after 25 years of operation — but compliance is lagging. Meanwhile, collision events are becoming more common (PDF), and experts worry about the safety of the International Space Station and important satellites. "Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities."
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Space Junk 'Cleaning' Missions Urgently Needed

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  • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <(ten.3dlrow) (ta) (ojom)> on Saturday April 27, 2013 @11:42AM (#43567603) Homepage

    Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

    • Re:Europe again (Score:4, Insightful)

      by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @11:54AM (#43567697)

      Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

      Because we're smarter and more capable than the rest of the world, that's why! So the duty naturally falls to us. We're also very humble about it and leave all the self-congratulation to Americans. What would they do without us?

      • That "White Man's Burden" probably gets heavy after awhile, doesn't it?

      • by Nyder (754090)

        Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

        Because we're smarter and more capable than the rest of the world, that's why! So the duty naturally falls to us. We're also very humble about it and leave all the self-congratulation to Americans. What would they do without us?

        Well, we did save you from being German, maybe next time we'll sit that one out?

        • by f3rret (1776822)

          Well, we did save you from being German, maybe next time we'll sit that one out?

          Nah, Soviets did that.

        • Well, we did save you from being German, maybe next time we'll sit that one out?

          Hardly. European geo-politics hasn't worked like that since the 19th century. You didn't save me from "being Russian", and for all that I am not a Russian.

      • by Raenex (947668)

        Good, have at it then, space garbagemen. In the meantime, give the US some credit for stuff like Hubble.

      • ESA! ESA! ESA!

    • "Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earthâ(TM)s changing climate some 20 years ago,"

      We're still denying there's a problem. There must be something wrong with your data.

      • "Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earthâ(TM)s changing climate some 20 years ago,"

        We're still denying there's a problem. There must be something wrong with your data.

        There is only a problem if you're in the business of putting satellites into orbit. I'm not. Most people aren't.

        • True dat. Spoken like a true capitalist. And of course, I don't use weather or communication or TV satellites, either, so I don't need to worry about it.
        • by quax (19371)

          Watched TV lately? Used a GPS? How about looked up a weather report?

          If you haven't done any of this lately, then maybe you really don't need satellites.

          • by cdrudge (68377)

            Watched TV lately?

            No, not really. Cut the cord some time ago. Mainly rely on streaming. Broadband is great in that regard.

            Used a GPS?

            No, not recently.
            Cell tower triangulation and wifi assisted locating is usually enough.

            How about looked up a weather report?

            Not a weather report, but forecast sure. It was cool a few days ago, yesterday it was warmer so there's a decent chance that it was going to be warmer today since yesterday weather from the west was clear and warmer too. Today it was warmer indeed and

            • by dave420 (699308)
              How do you think they get the co-ordinates for the cell tower? Even if you don't personally use satellites, you undoubtedly rely on services that do, even if you are unaware of it.
        • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

          It's a problem if you enjoy satellite delivered services like TV, telephony, semi-accurate weather forecasting etc.

    • by g0bshiTe (596213)
      Penance for giving the world a monarchy rule system.
    • If I'm remembering my history correctly Europe has created its own share of messes that effected the rest of the world, WWI and WWII anyone?

    • by bkmoore (1910118)

      Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

      Because ....

      1. China says, "you Europeans had two centuries to make messes before you had to clean them up. We're still a developing country, maybe in two hundred years we'll start thinking about it. Can you give us licenses to all your cleaning up technology, so we can sell it to you?"
      2. U.S.A. says, "there is no mess to clean up. God made the world in seven days and he'll clean it up in six. Messes, pi, fluoride, the Metric System, Obama, etc. are all European-African socialist conspiracies."
      3. Kim Jung Un says,
      • You're damn accurate and funny, except that Iran has always declared it did not want a BOMB, and puts all its fissile material under international safeguard.

    • by Nyder (754090)

      Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

      Both world wars where a European mess. Not sure about WWI (public school education, they didn't teach us much), but WWII, we (the USA) cleaned up Europe's mess and it turned us into dickwads/bullies towards the world.

    • by khallow (566160)

      Why is it always up to Europe to clean up the rest of the world's mess?

      When did Europe start doing this? It's welcome to do so, but I am a bit surprised.

  • Planetes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bidule (173941) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @11:42AM (#43567611) Homepage
    • LOVE that anime. One of the best animes i have ever seen. And the fully enclosed smoking seat gave me hope for the future.
      • by garyok (218493)
        Seconded. I loved how well-realised it all was. Favourite thing was the progress bar for interplanetary video chat to let you know when you could expect a response.
      • It was well put together but the show was spoiled for me by the persistently gloomy message with each episode, it was a complete downer, unneccessarily so.

    • It should be a high priority to collect the debris, as it is quite valuable - it takes a lot on money to get stuff into orbit, and most of the stuff is probably space worthy material.

      We shouldn't think of it as junk, but as free bulding material left around.

      • by Brucelet (1857158) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @05:12PM (#43569897)
        In the real world, that's a whole lot harder than it sounds. It's easy enough to get to an arbitrary LEO satellite, assuming you know its orbit well enough, but any dismantling and reusing would be extraordinarily difficult. This counts doubly for decommissioned satellites or debris which could be tumbling in some arbitrary fashion with no way to control. Plus, manufacturing in space is really really hard, as we've learned over 30 years of the Space Shuttle and 15 of the ISS. You probably need to launch lots of equipment (plus maybe a human or two, though no existing manned vehicle is up to the task) to make it work, and now you're doing much more work and spending much more money than you would just building something from scratch. And then of course here's the kicker: you've done all this work, and now (assuming you didn't leave anything new behind) you've removed one single piece of space junk. With the mass you've already needed to bring up to do your repair/retrofit, it's highly unlikely you'll have fuel to get to another object in even a very close orbit, and so you have to head home and launch another mission. And another. For every single piece of junk out there. It'd be absolutely impossible to make this work on a large enough scale to do anything about the debris problem.
        • But maybe you get to salvage an original Intel 8086!
          And who knows what crap is flying over our heads. Bubble memory, perhaps. Soviet Z80 clones. Solar panels that were incredibly expensive and rare 15 years ago. Worn out capacitors. I guess it's worth it to some people. The other trouble is, what if you have some mission failure and end up adding to the junk pool.

  • How about we just attach a giant magnet to the back of space craft similar to what you'd see behind the rear or front tires of an RV to pick up road debris before it punctures the tires.

    Citation: http://www.google.com/patents/US3956111 [google.com]
    • How about we just attach a giant magnet to the back of space craft similar to what you'd see behind the rear or front tires of an RV to pick up road debris before it punctures the tires.

      That's a bit like trying to keep bullets from hitting you by fanning them away with a folded bit of paper. Actually, no... It's exactly like that.

      • I thought you were being just a little stupid. For almost two seconds I really thought that. Then - I realized that no matter how carefully you maneuver, no matter how closely you match orbits with the debris you plan on collecting - a frigging magnet isn't going to have any effect on most of the debris. Unless someone has been shooting iron cannonballs up into space.

    • Ever tried to pick up a piece of aluminium with a magnet?
    • by SeaFox (739806)

      How about we just attach a giant magnet to the back of space craft similar to what you'd see behind the rear or front tires of an RV to pick up road debris before it punctures the tires.

      Ignoring that lots of the things that puncture tires will not react to magnets to begin with, how does the magnet being mounted behind the tires stop things from reaching them?

      • by RockDoctor (15477)
        It's for when you're reversing for 50 miles because you haven't realised that the vehicle has a manual transmission and can't read the instruction manual while driving.
    • by Nyder (754090)

      How about we just attach a giant magnet to the back of space craft similar to what you'd see behind the rear or front tires of an RV to pick up road debris before it punctures the tires.

      Citation: http://www.google.com/patents/US3956111 [google.com]

      Going to point out if you put magnets behind the wheels, you aren't going to stop it from being punctured.

    • by RockDoctor (15477)
      Hmmm, a patent with no product on sale.

      Considering that novelty golf ball detectors can be sold successfully as bomb detectors, this doesn't say a lot for the actual effectiveness of this idea.

  • Perhaps this is something that should have been taken seriously 30 years ago? It will take at least that long to hone the technology and pry the funding from the tightwads that only approve of pork in their districts.

    And, maybe NASA should jump at this - they seem to be in search of a mission and the dollars that go with it, maybe this is it?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Reading comprehension: don't post without it.

      What am I saying; this is Slashdot. Carry on.
  • Sounds like a job for Andy Griffith http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvage_1 [wikipedia.org]
  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @12:15PM (#43567835) Homepage
    The worst case scenario is a Kessler syndrome event http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome [wikipedia.org]. In this situation, a bad collision in low Earth orbit creates enough debris to trigger a series of collisions, each creating an expanding debris cloud. This could take most LEO satellites in a matter of days, and would render much of LEO effectively unusable for years. Part of the problem is that while there are a lot of possible orbits, the set of orbits which are both cheap to get to and practically useable is a much smaller set. And those orbits are almost precisely the orbits with a lot of debris. Right now, satellite are required to be able to move to either graveyard orbits or to be safely disposed in the atmosphere, but there are a lo of older satellites that were launched before any such requirement. And even with such plans, launches inevitably produce a few debris items with each launch, and satellites occasionally shed things. The early Delta rockets were very bad at producing a lot of debris, which contributed much of the current problem. Thee 2007 Chinese satellite test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Chinese_anti-satellite_missile_test [wikipedia.org] very much didn't help matters, and produced a massive still expanding cloud of debris. On the bright side, non-LEO orbits like geostat are still clean.
    • by thesupraman (179040) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @12:59PM (#43568099)

      Nice SciFi, but only a little statistics will soon tell you that...
      Space is big, really really big (even the prefered orbits).

      To sustain the required chain reaction you need a WHOLE lot more junk, and you also need it to be in particular orbits (too much of it is in somewhat similar orbits..)

      Its 'bad' right now because of the high cost of a VERY rare event (a significant energy impact), not because impacts are common.

      Impacts also tend not NOT produce a cloud of high energy objects, most objects are metalic and tend to be punched through rather than shatter (yes, even at the cool side of orbital temperatures).

      Of course plenty of people (governments, etc) realise that there is a fair bit of valuable 'junk' up there, and its value will rise in the future, however we will not see any mandate for collecting it and keeping in orbit for reuse, simply because a LOT of it is far too classified - even the commercial stuff - if China for example started collecting up old US sattelites, I suspect there would be trouble, etc.

      The thing to remember is this 'global warming type emergency' is bring proposed by the head of a body who would get funding to work on it - sound at all surprising?

      • by Brucelet (1857158)
        Do you have any idea how hard it is to "collect" a satellite? Sure' we've gotten quite good at rendezvousing with a specific object in a single orbit, but once you're there, it's incredibly difficult to dismantle and reuse materials. We have plenty of expertise in manipulating things that were designed to be repaired, and even in improvising repairs that weren't expected, but to build something new from old parts and materials would be something else entirely. Plus, even if you had some incredible repair/r
      • by pyalot (1197273)
        Kessler took into account that collisions are unlikely and that they won't produce the same kind of debris. And both don't matter to the outcome for some statistically unintuitive reasons. When two objects collide, there will be an increase in debris. It might only be a few crumbs, or it might be a spectacular cloud of new debris, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the outcome of the collision increased the likelyhood of further collsisions in the whole system. This is known as a runaway feedback loop
        • yawn, you seem to like a lot of hand waving about 'Statistics dont do that' without much understanding.

          There is nothing special here, statistics work just as well here as they do in fusion and fission reactions, in effect very similar things (although there you are trying to create a runway system..). Neutron energy, absorbtion cross-sections, etc, etc.

          You still need a bunch of requirements for a 'runaway reaction', and there is not NEARLY enough space junk to cause one, just as all the uranium in the earth

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          Statistics can't tell you next weeks weather because it can't model chaotic systems.

          [SELF : looks at the 10 day forecast on the vessel's internal network. Sees another weather bump coming in which will mean we have to get Wednesday's boat alongside and unloaded and going into the ground no later than Thursday afternoon, or the completion operation gets at least a week's delay. That's 600,000 to 700,000 USD extra cost on the operation.]

          Sorry, what were you saying about not being able to get a weather forec

    • by aliquis (678370)

      Didn't the US blow one just after that?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA-193#Destruction [wikipedia.org] ?

      But sure, just complain on/mention the Chinese (stupid as it was regardless.)

      • by JoshuaZ (1134087)
        USA-193 was in much lower orbit with the orbit already decaying so most of the debris burned up. In contrast, the Chinese test was in a stable orbit at the upper end of LEO and so produced a lot more long-term debris. That's not to say that USA-193 was at all a remotely good thing, but it was not nearly as bad.
  • Like this [wikipedia.org]....only REALLY BIG!
    • by RockDoctor (15477)
      I'm almost tempted to find out how strong those are. They look like interesting - and relatively cheap - toys. If they're strong enough.

      Then again ... dead hard drive ...

  • When you know it's going to be a problem sooner or later, but you'd rather ignore it now.
    space junk, energy, food, water, finances, republicans, windows xp, alcohol.

  • I propose a giant electromagnet in orbit. Can it be solar powered? After enough junk has glommed onto it, either deorbit the whole mess or launch it at the moon. The moonfall is a better idea; then a new breed of prospectors would have a chance to reclaim the stuff.

    • by NF6X (725054) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @01:43PM (#43568403) Homepage

      Call me when you come up with an electromagnet that attracts the aluminum, titanium, copper, carbon fiber composites and plastics that space vehicles are made from.

      Seriously, I want one of those.

      • by macraig (621737)

        Seriously, I was kidding.

        • by NF6X (725054)
          Seriously, now I'm disappointed. :)
          • by macraig (621737)

            I look forward to your Kickstarted project to research and invent this new magnet-for-everything. Maybe we can just cover it in Velcro? Oh wait....

            • by NF6X (725054)
              That's it! From now on, we need to make our satellites out of Velcro.
      • by RockDoctor (15477)
        Seriously, since a lot of satellites are composite, then you only really need to look at the set of satellites (and satellite fragments) which contain at least some ferromagnetic parts to see the [ehemm] attraction of this sort of idea. Whether one could be stable in flight (against interaction with the Earth's magnetic field) AND have large enough field of effect to sweep a usefully large volume - they're different, important, questions.

        Such devices wouldn't be able to clear up ALL debris. But to clear up

  • How about using some of Regan's star wars technology? Not to blow stuff up, but to give it a hard push with powerful lasers or xray beams. Push the small stuff into a degrading orbit to burn up in the atmosphere. It would be easier to target the small stuff like since you don't have to be close to it to give it a nudge. Once the little pieces are cleaned up, they can go after the less prevalent bigger pieces.
  • with NASA's current budget, there is no way we US citizens can tackle this. If they want to solve this, they need to give NASA more funding.
  • I wonder if anyone has looked into placing a satellite into orbit that was able to fire extremely precise mist clouds of some liquid. It would be launched either in a polar orbit or an opposite orbital direction from most satellites. It would fire the mist clouds into the path of a piece of debris and the energy imparted (~17,000 to ~34,000 MPH relative speed) on it from the mist would eventually cause it to deorbit. The best liquid for this would probably be something that remains a liquid on the dark s

    • by Brucelet (1857158)
      A light mist on earth hits pretty hard at 34,000 MPH. All you're doing is adding more debris and exacerbating the problem.
      • There's no debating that the debris is going to get quite a shock, if it was a full satellite it could even fragment slightly. But if the mist imparts enough energy it shouldn't matter as it would impart that energy across the entire surface of the debris, de-orbiting even the fragments. The real questions are of course would it impart enough energy to deorbit the debris in a reasonable amount of time, and would the "mist" (liquid/gas) that didn't hit the debris deorbit on its own or hang in orbit medium/

  • just shoot down any satellite the Chinese send up, they've lost the right to use the shared orbital space of this earth with their irresponsible creation of horrendous debris field

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Dereck1701 (1922824)

      You do realize that the Chinese "contribution" to the space debris problem is relatively insignificant compared to the amount of debris placed in orbit by the US and Russia right? I'm not saying it shouldn't be condemned, but the fact that they created 2% of the problem in one idiotic act compared to decades of continual stupidity by the US & Russia space agencies shouldn't given undue weight.

    • by Brucelet (1857158)
      This will not exacerbate the problem in any way
  • It's theorized that this is a possibility where collisions between space debris produce more debris and rise the likelyhood of further collisions. This would lead to a rapid feedback loop as collisions cascade. This would likely render space travel impossible for the next couple thousand years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome [wikipedia.org]
  • by Nyder (754090) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @08:05PM (#43571007) Journal

    Until we have a big ass disaster because of space debris, no one will do anything except talk about it.

    In case no one pays attention to Human history, we do NOT usually do anything until after someone bad has happened, then we run around like chickens with our heads cut off and remove more human rights.

  • Do not give that which is holy to dogs, and cast not your pearls before swine. SF is way too good for the average illiterate student.

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