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Space Science

Giant Balloons Could Solve Space Junk Problem 210

An anonymous reader writes "More than 100,000 objects bigger than a centimeter wide hover around our planet, accounting for 4 million pounds of junk that befouls our atmosphere and threatens the expensive satellites we actually want in orbit. Dr. Kristen Gates, of Global Aerospace Corporation, proposes that we can clear the skies by attaching a football field-sized balloon to dead satellites, which would increase the orbital drag, eventually bringing a satellite down into the atmosphere where it would burn up. The GOLD — or Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device — unit is easily inflated in space, and best of all, if the deployed GOLD balloon collides with space junk, it won't deflate or break the junk into smaller, less manageable bits."
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Giant Balloons Could Solve Space Junk Problem

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  • by Hatta ( 162192 )

    If there's enough junk flying around up there to damage satellites, wouldn't it also pop a giant balloon?

    • Re:pop! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @06:58PM (#33144894)

      With no pressure on the outside of the balloon it would deflate very slowly. This is doubly so because it does not take much gas to inflate a balloon in space due to the lack of outside pressure.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by teeks99 ( 849132 ) *
        Also they have developed materials that, once inflated in the vacuum of space, can hold their shape without any internal pressure.
        • Ok, now that you have a huge football field sized balloon, why not make the outside surface sticky and collect other bits of space junk on the way to the burn?
          • by iksbob ( 947407 )
            The differences in velocity are generally too great. It would be like trying to stop a shotgun blast with a single layer of packing tape. If you're lucky, a tiny speck of the tape might stick to a few of the pellets as they shred the strip and continue on their way.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Brad1138 ( 590148 )

              The differences in velocity are generally too great. It would be like trying to stop a shotgun blast with a single layer of packing tape. If you're lucky, a tiny speck of the tape might stick to a few of the pellets as they shred the strip and continue on their way.

              Sounds like a new Myth Busters episode...

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              I wonder if you could coat the balloon with a cheap reflective material that would leave residue on debris that impacted the surface. Wouldn't that provide a gradual increase in our tracking ability without costing a whole lot more than the original design?

          • Because when the space junk is a bolt traveling at 10km/s relative to you, sticky doesn't quite cut it.

          • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @08:15PM (#33145564)

            Because it will never catch them?

            You can test this at home with this simple procedure.

            1. Get a sheet of mylar and some sticks, an emergency blanket will do.

            2. Using the mylar and some sticks make a your balloon. The sticks will help to simulate the structures that can hold their shape.

            3. Tie this off to any structure. That structure will be the stand in satellite.

            4. Cover the balloon in glue.

            5. Get out your favorite high power firearm and fire some rounds at the balloon. These will be the space junk.

            6. see if any bullets, your simulated space junk, got stuck in the glue

            • Step 5 gave me the biggest belly laugh I've had this year. Thank you, sir!

              • by hcpxvi ( 773888 )
                Step 5 (Get out your favorite high power firearm...) gave me the biggest belly laugh I've had this year.
                The worrying thing is that if he is from the USA he probably does have a favourite high-power firearm.
                • In the USA you hear 'high power rifle' more often than 'high power firearm'.

                  'Most' countries allow people to buy rifles and/or shotguns for hunting purposes. Even Japan does.

                  You're not really doing a 'proper' simulation with a ~1k feet per second handgun. A ~2-3k fps rifle will be a better solution, but even a bunch of birdshot would work at close range.

                  *Looks around*

                  I don't have a favorite high power firearm, I love them all equally! ;)

            • That's why to get rid of those deadly fast little suckers we need the equivalent of the tar baby from the old br'er rabbit story. The reason a balloon won't work as there is nothing in the middle to slow it down, but a big ball o' goo would probably work great. I'm sure they have ultra sticky glues that can be powdered and mixed in space, maybe by using waste water from the ISS or carrying a tank of liquid with it. As anyone who has shot a bullet into mud can tell you even high powered shells can be stopped
              • How much waste water could the ISS have? That stuff is valuable, they recycle every drop possible.

              • I'm sure they have ultra sticky glues that can be powdered and mixed in space,

                Why are you sure of that?
                My chemistry isn't great - probably only better than 95% of the non-chemists in the world - because I only have to use various bits of polymer and surface chemistry in my day-to-day work. But I do routinely have to work with specialists in polymer chemistry and I maintain a friendship with a former adhesives chemist. I'm not at all sure that "they" (whoever "they" are) have the sort of adhesives you descr

            • A firearm is not nearly enough. You need something like linear accelerator to simulate low-orbit speeds.

              And then you'd notice your bullets quite often will be _vaporized_ during the collision.

              • by ComaVN ( 325750 )

                your bullets quite often will be _vaporized_ during the collision.

                Problem solved, no?

  • Easy-peasy. No delta-V issues here...
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Naturally the slashdot headline is wrong. They're talking about attaching it to entirely intact satellites to get them to de-orbit without hitting something and making more debris. (as seen from the URL of the story linked: "_Without_Making_The_Problem_Worse"

      In other words, you just have to catch up to the satellites.

      • No. They're talking about attaching it to new satellites as a cheaper de-orbit solution than carrying sufficient reserve fuel.
  • When The Economist magazine became the first general-interest magazine to cover the space junk problem about 15 years ago, it pointed out that the problem was there was no international agreement or agency forcing private owners of satellites to budget enough fuel to de-orbit the satellite at the end of its life. Every gram costs a small fortune, so they used every gram of fuel to keep the satellite "stationary" (i.e. in desired orbit).

    The space junk problem (except for paint chips and astronaut toolbags)

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I find it hard to believe that the mass of a football-field-sized balloon is less than the fuel to just drop the orbit into a brief but colourful brush with the atmosphere.

      Well you need to factor in the rocket engine, guidance, and the risk that you may lose active control of the vehicle and be unable to deorbit it. My thinking is that a drag brake (or parachute, solar sail or balloon) could be a separate system. Mostly passive. It gets a simple command, or fires on a timer. It orients itself passively and results in re-entry in a couple of months or so.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      >>>Every gram costs a small fortune, so they used every gram of fuel to keep the satellite "stationary" (i.e. in desired orbit).

      It's pretty pathetic that despite 50 years of space experience, we still have to worry about mere grams of fuel. I suspect humans will never develop the ability to travel further than our own solar system - it would be too expensive (in terms of fuel).

      1000 years from now we'll be in pathetic shape, with all our oil, uranium, and other resources drained dry, and just barel

      • "1000 years from now we'll be in pathetic shape, with all our oil, uranium, and other resources drained dry, and just barely surviving."

        ...since people were just barely surviving in the era before oil, uranium, and other resources were being used. Unless by "other resources" you mean things like trees, food, etc, which are replenishable, or water, which isn't really going anywhere any time soon, even if it's not always at the part of the planet we might prefer.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by wagnerrp ( 1305589 )

        It's pretty pathetic that despite 50 years of space experience, we still have to worry about mere grams of fuel. I suspect humans will never develop the ability to travel further than our own solar system - it would be too expensive (in terms of fuel).

        Travel in space is simple. Ion drives and other forms of electric propulsion have the potential for incredible velocities. Gravitation sling-shotting gives you plenty more velocity for free. The problem is that first 9km/s needed for low earth orbit. You have atmospheric drag to contend with, so you need to get out of the atmosphere as soon as possible.

        Consider one of the space shuttle SRBs for example. At full throttle, each is pumping out some 5400kg/s at 2450m/s. That's roughly 16GW, or several tim

        • by hcpxvi ( 773888 )
          the space shuttle SRBs [...] At full throttle ...
          I don't think an SRB has any other setting (apart from "fuse not lit yet").
    • The perennial problem of common resource management. There is no agreed upon agent that rules earth orbit space. So there aren't any rules. Without rules, the market is just going to take the cheapest route. Most often this includes polluting common resources, because sustainability and responsibility are expensive. Bad for the bottom line.

      So the earth people can make a choice: sell all of the corridors to the highest bidder, and hope that they take care of it. Or you tax the industries that want to use tho

    • FTA

      Although the ultra thin envelope could be the size of a sports field (100 m diameter) when inflated, it is so thin that it can be folded and stowed in a surprisingly small volume (a medium size suitcase). It is most economical to attach it to a spacecraft or rocket upper stage before launch and deployed after the end of mission.
      The GOLD system actually weighs less than the propellant needed to do the same job and it is very inexpensive, and this means it is more cost-effective to add a GOLD system before launch than to carry the extra fuel.

  • If you could find a way to make the exterior sticky as it's being deployed, then anything in a similar orbit and speed would be swept up as well. And I shall call it... The Space-Swiffer!
    • Dear uglyMood

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      Widespread use of the Swiffer(R) trade mark has been made, to the extent that this trademark has acquired an extensive reputation and goodwill. The Swiffer trademark is, accordingly, also a well-known mark for all relevant purposes of trademark law.

      It has come to our attention that you are using and/or have applied to use and publicize the

  • "CubeSail" for example; soon available for deployment - []

    Should make some nicely visible light show from time to time...

  • Help (Score:5, Funny)

    by Kozar_The_Malignant ( 738483 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @07:29PM (#33145194)
    I'm having a problem understanding how filling low-earth-orbit with Zerg Overlords is a good thing.
  • by richardkelleher ( 1184251 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @07:31PM (#33145232) Homepage

    What I don't understand is, since we already paid a hefty price to lift this "material" into space, why not collect it in orbit and save it until we can utilize it as raw materials for future space projects. There must be lots of useful stuff that could be reprocessed and reused.

    Doesn't everyone have the expectation that we will have factories in space to build the things that are needed in space from raw materials gathered from around the solar system? This would just be raw materials for those factories that doesn't have to be lifted out of the gravity well of earth.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekoid ( 135745 )

      In most case you would spend more then you could possible get out of bringing it back.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      1. Launch costs will have to come down by a hefty factor before it becomes economic to launch entire factories and bring raw materials from far away. Once launch costs have come down that far (and I'm not holding my breath), the value of the raw materials that are in orbit today will seem slight. Meanwhile, even one more collision between derelict satellites will make the orbital environment more dangerous and harder to clean up.

      2. The raw materials that are in orbit today are in a wide variety of orbits,

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Why not collect it in space?

      It's not economically feasible to collect it, but you might like Planetes [] - an Anime about collecting space junk in exchange for eco-friendly credits (like carbon offsets).

      • If we have to send something (or someone) to each major object of space junk to attache one of these decelerators, how would collecting the object be less costly?
        • by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @09:09PM (#33145946) Homepage

          Ok, you've grappled the object. Where do you want to send it?

          Sending it down requires a drag chute of some kind. Or it requires just enough delta-v to drop its perigee just a little lower into the atmosphere.

          Suppose we had the mother of all factories sitting in equatorial orbit. Suppose your space junk is in a 35 degree orbit. Both objects are traveling at around 27Kkm/h if they're in a relatively low orbit. However, one object is moving 27Kkm/h due east, and one is moving 27Kkm/h 35 degrees north of east. Relative to each other they are moving at thousands of kilometers per hour when they pass each other. To collect the object you need to apply that much of a velocity change to it, which is a huge amount of energy (not quite what it took to launch, but we're getting into that kind of magnitude).

          Think of it this way - you're on a racetrack going 200mph. Another car is going 200mph the other way. You want to collect it. How do you do this without massively changing its velocity?

          One of the first rules of orbital mechanics is that plane changes are expensive. That's why the shuttle can't visit the ISS and the hubble on the same mission. They're both in similar altitude orbits, but in different planes. The shuttle doesn't have enough fuel to change planes (at least, not that far - and without looking up the numbers that is probably only 10 degrees or so).

          • by Idou ( 572394 )
            Alright, how about creating clusters of grappled objects every 10 degrees or so with an army of micro satellites. Catalog and RFID tag each object. Then move your "factory" to the closest plane that has the most valuable cluster of objects. If no such plane exists, then just wait until one is created (I am sure the rate of space junk will just increase here on out). Send new factories up to lucrative groupings of planes too different for existing factories to reach. . . . Profit.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Solar sails and patience.
        • by socsoc ( 1116769 )
          It's equally as useless as your original post. It's junk for a reason, just like how people throw out bottles with redemption values. Fuck the raw materials, it's gonna be old technology and metals nobody cares about.
  • I don't see why it needs to be an inflatable balloon. If the goal is to produce drag to decrease your orbit until reentry, why not just deploy a very large, football field sized tether and sail to the back. The material demonstrated by the Ikaros mission for use in a solar sail could do something like this. Carrying an inflatable balloon and the gas necessary to inflate it seems like over-complicating the very simple goal of increasing drag. As for deployment, tethers can do some pretty cool deployments sim
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by teeks99 ( 849132 ) *
      That's all fine and good if you have great attitude (direction) control of your spacecraft. If you lose your gyros or something during the lifetime of the spacecraft, then you wouldn't be able to control an Ikaros like sail. Having a spherical balloon that doesn't care about direction and can inflate with minimal mechanical effort seems a lot more reliable.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        If you've lost control of your spacecraft before it begins it's deorbit maneuver, chances are any system you put on there is going to have a hell of a hard time getting it to deorbit appropriately. Even if you start to inflate this giant spherical balloon after you've lost the ability to point your spacecraft, due to loss of reaction wheels or some other such thing, you are going to be trying to deploy a very large moment arm in an unpredictable/unknowable dynamic scenario (in other words, your rates and at
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by teeks99 ( 849132 ) *
          If this were air, you'd be completely correct. However, in the vacuum of space and with a very light balloon (we're talking on the order of 10lbs for a football-field size one) there isn't much of a moment arm. The force due to drag would probably be measured in ounces and then you have just the weight of the actual structure. Generally when satellites attitude control systems fail, they don't immediately start spinning like crazy, probably just a few degrees per minute.
    • There was this article [] in Wired magazine talking about space junk and bringing them down with a giant tether. It seems like the balloon idea might work with large pieces of junk, but it seems like the bigger threat are the small pieces no larger than a few inches. The article stated that the ISS had a few close calls with some pieces of junk no larger than a baseball that could have caused massive damage if it hit the station. We can't tied a balloon or tether to every little piece out there. We need a

  • Got her name wrong (Score:3, Informative)

    by crgrace ( 220738 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @07:41PM (#33145330)
    It's Dr. Kristin Gates []. At least try to get the basic facts right.
  • You wouldn't necessarily need to inflate a large balloon. There are several other low-mass/high drag options. A long ribbon would be one. It could be coiled up against the torque of a spring (for example) and be released by mechanical means; a lot simpler than carrying the stuff (valves, hoses/tubing, tanks, etc) to inflate the balloon (even though you would only need a small amount of pressure). There were several experiments with tethers and satellites back in the '90's. Two mechanisms would help bri
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The electromagnetic force that is.

    Why would you bother with atmospheric drag, just pay out a cable and use electromagnetic drag instead. Oh wait they can do that already...

  • The electromagnetic force that is. Why would you bother with atmospheric drag, just pay out a cable and use electromagnetic drag instead. Oh wait they can do that already... Terminator Tether - EDT Solution To Space Debris []
  • There may be more than one company, but the one I ran across years ago
    was 21st century airships. []

    At 65,000 ft there is no wind.

    With almost the same controls as used for RC planes one person
    could launch or land a stratollite for repairs or upgrades.

    With this lower version of the satellite you could use less power
    and get less interference.

    You cover less area, but the costs of launch are so much lower
    it makes it well worth it and even more if the balloon has multiple

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @08:16PM (#33145576) Journal

    Set off a bunch of nukes in the upper atmosphere. This will cause the atmosphere to expand, increasing drag and sending LEO space debris plummeting to earth.

    Of course there will be side effects, but hey, it's NUKES.

  • I mean, I suppose there may be trace amounts of atmosphere up that high, but I can't imagine something even the size of a whole football field being able to effectively utilize the tiny amount of air that might be available to induce drag.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      The equation for drag is force = 1/2 * speed^2 * density of atmosphere * area * drag coefficient. At orbital speeds, speed^2 is very large, so even a low density will produce significant drag. Also, the football-field-sized balloon has a very high cross-sectional area in relation to its mass, and even the mass of it plus the satellite, so the force produced will be still more capable of de-orbiting the satellite.
    • As the ISS constantly loses altitude because of a slight atmospheric drag, it needs to be boosted to a higher altitude several times each year. []

  • Or easier ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by w0mprat ( 1317953 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @08:36PM (#33145750)
    Why not simply magnetize the dead satellite or include a small permanent magnet? This would create a magnetic sail. The magnetic field around the satellite would slowly trap plasma from the trace of gases and ions in earth orbit, as well as anything leaking from the sat itself. This would inflate the magnetic field lines and expand a kind of mini magnetosphere around the satellite. This would create drag against the earths magnetic field, and outer atmosphere.

    Common permanent magnets can be much stronger than needed for this. []
  • Why don't we just do like we always do: Instead of cleaning up the place, move Earth to a less cluttered location in space?

  • You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  • I see it being a bit hard to attach a balloon to a screwdrive or a nut and the like.
  • by DaveAtFraud ( 460127 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 @11:04PM (#33146512) Homepage Journal

    The big stuff that would be worth mounting a mission to de-orbit typically isn't the problem. The little, tiny, hard to track bits of space rubish is the real problem.

    The big stuff can usually be avoided since it is easily tracked. The little, tiny stuff is effectively a bullet travelling at 17,000 or so miles an hour. It's too small to track and one piece of such junk can ruin your spaceship. Plus, there is a lot more of it than the few, big, defunct satellites that you might want to attach a balloon to.


    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by AJWM ( 19027 )

      If the big stuff stays up there, it has a tendency to get hit by the small stuff, which turns the big stuff into more clouds of little stuff. Above a certain density of stuff in orbit, this can lead to a rapid chain reaction that leaves LEO rather inhospitable. Better to de-orbit the big stuff as soon as it's no longer useful.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by teeks99 ( 849132 ) *
      Also, the big stuff (many of which are rocket stages with some fuel left in them) sometimes explodes: []

      If we can deorbit even one *before* it explodes, we can cut the number of space debris by hundreds or thousands.
  • They were able to keep #6 in the village so they should be good at collecting the space junk.
  • Imagine what would happen if some piece of junk hits that garbage bag with a speed of 30.000 km per hour.

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.