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Space Junk 'Cleaning' Missions Urgently Needed 165

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 Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 27, 2013 @12:01PM (#43567743)
    Reading comprehension: don't post without it.

    What am I saying; this is Slashdot. Carry on.
  • 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 __aajfby9338 ( 725054 ) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @01:43PM (#43568403)

    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.

  • Re:cheaper solution (Score:3, Informative)

    by Dereck1701 ( 1922824 ) on Saturday April 27, 2013 @03:11PM (#43568959)

    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.

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson