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What looks like a swarm of bees flying around a ball is actually a map of the junk and debris in low orbit (<2000 km) around the Earth. The plot is from NASA Earth Observatory. The dots are plotted according to the position of the debris at the time. They are not plotted according to their size. The debris pieces are moving as fast as 7,800 m/s, which is 5 miles/sec. They constitute a major problem for any spacecraft in low orbit from possible collisions.

There have been several previous diaries about the problem of Space Debris or Space Junk. Go to the Search feature and put those terms in "quotes" to find them. What is different this time is the proposal by the Swiss to remove some of the debris.

More about the Swiss plan is below the squiggle.

Scale and Scope of the Debris Problem
This map shows the space junk out to the distance of geosynchronous satellites, the kind your home satellite dish points toward. Notice the fine ring. Satellites and debris at this distance orbit the Earth in about 24 hours, the same time it takes the Earth to rotate. So, it appears to remain above the same point on Earth above the equator. Following this image is another view of the junk from above the pole of Earth.


This chart from the European Space Agency illustrates the types of objects and the increase in their number up to 2008. Currently, there are over 16,000 tracked objects of 10 cm size or larger. There are possibly 500,000 objects too small to track. This NASA article explains more of the scope of the problem if you want more info. Here is another url offering images and reading into the debris problem.

If you have a school globe handy, the 12" model in your kid's room, most of the junk is in orbit within about 1" of the surface. Most of the satellites of Earth are in orbit within that range of the surface. The International Space Station is in orbit about ⅓" above this school globe model. It has been visited many times by the Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz vehicles ferrying equipment and people.

The ISS and the visiting spacecraft all orbit at speeds of 7,800 m/s. When they are going parallel to each other, their relative speeds make it seem like a motionless ballet. Only by looking down to Earth is there a sense of high speed. But, if the motions of the orbiting objects is not parallel, collisions can occur at hyper-velocity. This has happened many times. Space junk collides with other junk. Junk collides with active satellites. For example, upon return of Shuttle flight STS-7, close inspection of one of the windows showed the damage in the image below. An object not much bigger than a fleck of paint caused this damage. A 1 mm scale is marked below the damage.

On flight STS-118, the heat radiator on the opened cargo bay doors was penetrated by an object. The images below show the location of the puncture, the entrance hole, and the exit hole. This posed no danger to the astronauts. But it does illustrate the danger of a strike by even a small piece of debris.






The Swiss Proposal to Grapple the Junk
On February 15, 2012, the Swiss released the details of a plan to begin removing the junk.
To combat this scourge, the Swiss Space Center at EPFL is announcing today the launch of CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first installment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris.
EPFL is Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lusanne. CleanSpace One is a project to build the first prototype in a family of “de-orbiting” satellites. The first one is to establish a proof of concept for the plan. Later, launches of many in a fleet of these small debris hunters could clear large swaths of orbit altitudes that are populated by many important spacecraft to reduce the likelihood of collisions.

Their plan has three large challenges. First, the satellite has to adjust its orbit to match its target’s orbit. To do this, EPFL laboratories is developing an ultra-compact motor. Second, when within range of its target, it will grab and stabilize it. That is a very challenging task. It is especially difficult, if not impossible if the satellite is rotating. The scientists are developing a grappling device inspired from nature. Finally, the grappled pair will “de-orbit” into the atmosphere, where the two satellites will be destroyed upon re-entry.

The following 4 min video from EPFL clearly presents the problem and their plan. There is also some commentary by Claude Nicollier, astronaut and EPFL professor.





What Do You Think?
Certainly, this is a problem that is large and won't go away on its own. Some debris will re-enter the atmosphere. But, most of it is so far above the atmosphere, it will take decades or centuries before it decays low enough. As Nicollier stated, it is like the global warming problem we face. Something needs to be done to address it. To do nothing is unacceptable.

I am curious what you think of this proposal.

Originally posted to SciTech on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 08:10 AM PST.

Also republished by Astro Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Here is an example of modeling of impact... (22+ / 0-)

    of a small object traveling at high velocity. Punctures to the pressurized walls of the ISS would result in loss of pressure to a specific compartment.

    GOP JOBS Act - Ⓙust Ⓞur Ⓑeing Ⓢtupid


    by jim in IA on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 05:53:08 AM PST

  •  A truly serious proposal... (7+ / 0-)

    ...would include sorting the materials, and recycling some (like metals) in orbit, using solar energy for power. Just letting the junk burn up is a waste, at best, and a possible source of atmospheric pollution, at worst. I give them a C minus.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 08:23:13 AM PST

    •  I hope this proof of concept works when... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, JeffW, Polly Syllabic

      they get to the launch phase. Your ideas pose a big challenge. They ought to be considered.

      GOP JOBS Act - Ⓙust Ⓞur Ⓑeing Ⓢtupid


      by jim in IA on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 08:28:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Dunno, I'd Give the Articles of Confed a D at Best (5+ / 0-)

      but they were a helpful step in a necessary direction.

      As to the space debris, there can't be very many total tons of this stuff; article is talking about half a million objects too small to track. If there are a million objects up there at an average as much as 1 pound weight, that's got to be a tiny fraction of annual jet exhaust we release, and most of the space debris isn't even carbon which is the big issue in pollution from such a modest mass.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 08:34:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good point about the A of Conf. (5+ / 0-)

        A starting point is needed. As far as the large number of tiny objects is concerned, their exceptional speeds is the biggest concern for the safety of spacecraft and inhabitants. BB sized bits traveling 5 miles/sec carry a large amount of energy. Impact melts and vaporizes a hole. This clean-up challenge is a very big problem to tackle.

        You are right about the pollution caused by that modest mass of jet emissions. Thanks for your comments.

        GOP JOBS Act - Ⓙust Ⓞur Ⓑeing Ⓢtupid


        by jim in IA on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:05:07 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I believe Gooserock means that recycling (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          jim in IA, JeffW

          them is not a primary consideration. 16,000 objects, mostly metal, at an average weight of maybe 5 pounds each is 80,000 pounds - or the weight of 16 Hummers.

          In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

          by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 10:00:09 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  18,000 lbs. of metal... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            jim in IA

            ...vaporized into the atmosphere, plus the weight of the sacrificed grapplers, or reuse the grapplers, and recycle the metal in orbit, as a beginning to orbital industry?

            Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

            by JeffW on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 02:22:59 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The cost is prohibitive (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              jim in IA

              The recycling center would have an orbit. The debris would have an orbit. These are unlikely to be the same orbit.

              Plane changes of orbits takes a lot of fuel. How much hydrazine are you willing to decompose in a simple monoprop system in order to move the 5# chunk of debris from the orbit it is in, to the orbit of the recycling center?

              In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

              by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 03:28:06 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Ok, but what about the cost of the grapplers? (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                jim in IA

                They would have to maneuver, anyway, and it looks like each chunk is sacrificed with a grappler. What's the cost of that? And what about those little pieces? How do we deal with them?

                Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

                by JeffW on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 04:00:39 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  Cool beans! Good on the Swiss. If anyone could (4+ / 0-)

    clean up space I would trust the tidy Swiss.

    I'd love to see a space krill gatherer, that could go counter-current and swoop up lots of small debris but I can see that will be several steps down the road.

    Has anyone written a science fiction story about a deliberately triggered space junk avalanche?

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Wee Mama on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:13:48 AM PST

    •  I think you are on to something (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jim in IA, Dvalkure, Wee Mama

      but the krill collector should swim with the stream, just faster. So it would swoop down from above, then slow down and rise.

      In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

      by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:56:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  As to the space junk avalanche (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jim in IA, Wee Mama

      the Soviets (or maybe it was the Chinese) supposedly have a "sand" ASAT. You want to mess up a satellite with an on-board telescope and also solar cells, an orbital velocity sand storm will do the trick, and requires no fancy GN&C.

      In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

      by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:57:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A materials guy told me once (4+ / 0-)

    that a hyper-speed collision is different than a normal one in that the impact occurs at speeds greater than the speed of sound in the materials colliding. That is, the waves from the collision cannot propagate away from the impact point as fast as the materials themselves are moving.

    This leads to most materials shattering or vaporizing rather than deforming. It's sort of kinda like taking the crumple zones out of your car before a head-on collision.

    In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

    by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:47:22 AM PST

  •  As for how to do this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jim in IA

    Most satellites are launched into orbits that take advantage of the earth's rotation to aid in reaching escape velocity. So most of the debris is moving west to east. I think it might be a lot easier to launch something that would "chase" debris (requires continuous thrust) with large sticky panels. Since it is gaining on them at non-hyper-velocities the debris would get caught by the panels and stick. When the catcher starts to run out of fuel it performs a de-orbit burn and drops itself into the atmosphere.

    In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there always is a difference. - Yogi Berra En théorie, il n'ya aucune différence entre théorie et pratique, mais en pratique, il ya toujours une différence. - Yogi Berra

    by blue aardvark on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 09:54:50 AM PST

  •  Rather than one grappler going for one piece... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Polly Syllabic, JeffW

    of junk, I like the idea of sweeping larger volumes with catch nets, such as the krill discussion above. Couldn't you efficiently pack a lot of sweep nets into a cargo? Deploy them in strategic orbits to ensnare a number of targeted objects. Then, go after the net and debris to grapple it and drag it down to re-entry. It seems more cost effective.

    GOP JOBS Act - Ⓙust Ⓞur Ⓑeing Ⓢtupid


    by jim in IA on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 10:18:28 AM PST

  •  how about an iceberg (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jim in IA

    such as the ice and seaweed mat envisioned for one of arther c clarkes novels....if it sticks, you burn it up when your mat starts getting tattered, as long as you dissapate enough energy on impact, you will slow it into re-entry...retrograde orbit though.

    "I took a walk around the world, To ease my troubled mind. I left my body laying somewhere In the sands of time" Kryptonite 3 doors Down

    by farmerchuck on Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 11:21:44 AM PST

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