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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 Anonymous Coward on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:13PM (#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 Nemyst ( 1383049 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:28PM (#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 Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:46PM (#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 Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Friday October 05, 2012 @02:55PM (#41561707)

    Actually, probably not. That's the beauty of this. Shooting gas at a satellite might cause some orbit degradation, but it'd be tough to do something really nasty to it. This only works against small pieces of debris, much smaller than any satellite. Which has, incidentally, always been the most worrying aspect of orbital debris.

  • Of course he's ignoring segments of the claims... You can't produce breathless hyperbole if you include all the facts.

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