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Space Science

Boeing Proposes Using Gas Clouds To Bring Down Orbital Debris 147

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 Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:19PM (#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 jmerlin ( 1010641 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:32PM (#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.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:45PM (#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 admdrew ( 782761 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:55PM (#41561705) Homepage

    Who said anything about BIG.

    Boeing []:

    the cloud has a size of 50 km to 500 km, a mass of 1,000 kg to 10,000 kg

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @04:50PM (#41562823)

    Here's a quick summary of the procedure you're talking about: []

    Initially, they were thinking of ablating the surface of the junk with the laser, but turns out you need a hell of a lot of power to do that, so it wouldn't be very economical. More recent calculations suggest exposure to a ~5kW laser might be enough to decay the orbit enough to bring it back into the atmosphere where it'll burn up, and they estimate that a device such as this, big enough to handle 5-10 objects a day, could be put together for a few million dollars.

  • by bertok ( 226922 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @07:31PM (#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.

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