Space

Paper-thin membrane would scoop up orbital space junk

The Brane Craft is designed to wrap itself around orbiting space junk and then slowly lower itself into the atmosphere where it burns up
The Brane Craft is designed to wrap itself around orbiting space junk and then slowly lower itself into the atmosphere where it burns up
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The Brane Craft is designed to wrap itself around orbiting space junk and then slowly lower itself into the atmosphere where it burns up
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The Brane Craft is designed to wrap itself around orbiting space junk and then slowly lower itself into the atmosphere where it burns up

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.

Source: Aerospace Corp, NASA

5 comments
KennyReed
I don't understand how there can laws about littering and many other stupid laws of lesser and greater significance but the government can sign off on space junk and dumping trash in the sea (garbage from NYC). If you can't leave it as clean as you found it then you have no business being in the area, whether it is space, the sea, or the earth.
Bob Flint
Looks more like a membrane solar array with no visible means of power, or control as it would need to catch up to target trash. Also would require sufficient mass that 3oz of wafer could not provide, unless it was adhered to or wrapped itself around to create enough drag to decay orbit and eventually burn up.
christopher
Because stopping stuff going way faster than a bullet with no more than a few sheets of toilet paper is obviously going to work just fine... As bad as "junk" might be, trying to get rid of it will make everything exponentially worse - the more thruster-exhaust gets wasted accelerating anything to a sensible speed to catch the junk, the more "drag" that's going to create for everything already there, so the more exhaust *they* have to vent to stay in orbit, ad infiniatum... Personally - I don't care if we wreck orbital space for everyone; it's been overrun by spy and war machinery anyhow - we are all better off with out it.
Bob
This looks impractical and very expensive. I still think my idea of launching tanks of liquid nitrogen and venting them forming large clouds of nitrogen in an east to west orbit would be cheaper and work better at dragging the space junk down. This would be like extending the atmospheric drag higher into low orbit. The tanks could be recovered and reused. The larger satellites would be negligibly affected while the smaller space junk would be dragged down. The tanks would be large enough to track and avoid as more useful satellites are launched.
Bob Vious
Someone explain this "electric propulsion" for me please.