With an estimated 7,000 tonnes (7,700 tons) of debris in orbit around our planet, space junk is increasingly becoming a major problem as small bits of old satellites and discarded booster rockets act like small bullets, potentially damaging satellites and exacerbating the problem. An innovative solution dubbed the Brane Craft has just been awarded US$500,000 from NASA to further develop the concept that is designed to scoop up this junk.

NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awarded Dr Siegfried Janson's Brane Craft design US$100,000 as part of its Phase 1 grants in 2016. This initial phase supported the early stages of concept development, but Phase 2 is when things really kick up a notch.

The Brane Craft is a thin 3-ft x 3 ft (0.9 x 0.9 m) craft weighing in at under 3 oz (85 g). The membrane is thinner than a human hair and features integrated solar cells, a power system, communications, command and control, attitude determination, attitude control, electric propulsion, and shape control systems. It is designed to approach floating debris, wrapping itself around the junk and dragging it into the atmosphere where it would burn up.

We've seen plenty of inventive proposals to solving the space junk problem over the last few years. One group developed a cubical satellite that would launch a net around floating space junk. Another team from Japan proposed a laser-based system that targets debris, shooting it into the atmosphere where it can safely burn up.

While the Brane Craft concept is similar to other ideas that ultimately burn the space junk up in our atmosphere, it also has features that give it broader applications beyond simply harvesting orbital debris. Dr Janson's concept includes an experimental ionic liquid thruster system, initially developed by NASA, allowing the craft to travel long distances. This means the design could be used to contain and harvest space debris outside Earth's orbit.

"Brane Craft prospectors could land on any near-Earth asteroid, Phobos, Deimos, a wide variety of main belt asteroids, or orbit Mars or Venus, and return," Dr Janson said.

The Phase 2 funding will allow two more years of concept development, including lab demonstrations of the design and the thin-film electronics.

"We will identify the most promising fabrication technologies, develop a technology roadmap, and provide recommendations for further development," Dr Janson explains.