Space

ESA's mission to de-clutter low-Earth orbit takes a step forward

A graphic depicting the distribution of orbital debris around Earth
A graphic depicting the distribution of orbital debris around Earth
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A graphic depicting the distribution of orbital debris around Earth
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A graphic depicting the distribution of orbital debris around Earth

ESA's mission tomitigate the environmental impacts on low-Earth orbit from mankind'srelentless march into space has entered a new phase, ahead of itsmake-or-break review before the ESA's Council of Ministers inDecember 2016. The e.Deorbit program would launch multiple debris-seeking probes into orbit each year, tasked with the removal ofdefunct satellites and other potentially hazardous man-made objectsfrom low-Earth orbit.

Currently, there isstill very little chance of two satellites colliding. However, as weincrease our presence in space those odds will inevitably go up, andwhen such a collision does occur, it has the potential to create acatastrophic chain reaction.

This was the case backin 2009 when a collision between satellites Iridium 33 andKosmos-2251 created a cloud of smaller debris that lead to acollision warning for the ISS only last year. If it hadn't been forthe presence of ESA's ATV Georges Lemaître, which succeeded inpushing the station out of harm's way, the debris could have damagedthe station, and possibly even led to a loss of life.

Accidents such as this,and unchecked proliferation of man-made debris, could eventuallyresult in low-Earth orbit becoming all but unusable. This scenario isknown as the Kessler syndrome.

Steps are already beingtaken to avoid this eventuality. For example, newly manufacturedsatellites must operate with a contingency to put them out of harm'sway at the end of their operational lives, either by pushingthemselves into a seldom-used graveyard orbit, or simply byde-orbiting themselves.

However pre-existingderelict satellites and the upper stages of launch vehicles representa significant problem, one that 2.Deorbit hopes to tackle.Officially, the project has moved from Phase-A to Phase-B1, which isESA's way of saying that it is now in the process of getting thesatellite design finished up and ready for production.

"I am very pleasedwith the progress we are making," states project manager fore.Deorbit, Robin Biesbroek. "In this phase we willreally go into detail on the concept of operations, e.Deorbit’ssubsystems design, and especially the capture and deorbit phases."

The design for thesatellite is currently far from finalized, and the agency and itspartners have yet to decide on just how the probe will grapple with,and dispose of, potentially harmful chunks of debris. This said, ESAhas announced its intent to use the upper stage of a Vega rocket asthe platform for the satellite, and has now ruled out using aharpoon-based system to capture the space junk. This leaves snaringthe debris via a weighted net, or grabbing it with a robotic arm asthe remaining options for the final design.

Source: ESA

ESA's mission tomitigate the environmental impacts on low-Earth orbit from mankind'srelentless march into space has entered a new phase, ahead of itsmake-or-break review before the ESA's Council of Ministers inDecember 2016. The e.Deorbit program would launch multiple debris-seeking probes into orbit each year, tasked with the removal ofdefunct satellites and other potentially hazardous man-made objectsfrom low-Earth orbit.

Currently, there isstill very little chance of two satellites colliding. However, as weincrease our presence in space those odds will inevitably go up, andwhen such a collision does occur, it has the potential to create acatastrophic chain reaction.

This was the case backin 2009 when a collision between satellites Iridium 33 andKosmos-2251 created a cloud of smaller debris that lead to acollision warning for the ISS only last year. If it hadn't been forthe presence of ESA's ATV Georges Lemaître, which succeeded inpushing the station out of harm's way, the debris could have damagedthe station, and possibly even led to a loss of life.

Accidents such as this,and unchecked proliferation of man-made debris, could eventuallyresult in low-Earth orbit becoming all but unusable. This scenario isknown as the Kessler syndrome.

Steps are already beingtaken to avoid this eventuality. For example, newly manufacturedsatellites must operate with a contingency to put them out of harm'sway at the end of their operational lives, either by pushingthemselves into a seldom-used graveyard orbit, or simply byde-orbiting themselves.

However pre-existingderelict satellites and the upper stages of launch vehicles representa significant problem, one that 2.Deorbit hopes to tackle.Officially, the project has moved from Phase-A to Phase-B1, which isESA's way of saying that it is now in the process of getting thesatellite design finished up and ready for production.

"I am very pleasedwith the progress we are making," states project manager fore.Deorbit, Robin Biesbroek. "In this phase we willreally go into detail on the concept of operations, e.Deorbit’ssubsystems design, and especially the capture and deorbit phases."

The design for thesatellite is currently far from finalized, and the agency and itspartners have yet to decide on just how the probe will grapple with,and dispose of, potentially harmful chunks of debris. This said, ESAhas announced its intent to use the upper stage of a Vega rocket asthe platform for the satellite, and has now ruled out using aharpoon-based system to capture the space junk. This leaves snaringthe debris via a weighted net, or grabbing it with a robotic arm asthe remaining options for the final design.

Source: ESA

7 comments
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Use solar sails to move material to Lagrange points for later use.
Don Duncan
Use phasers to vaporize or vacuum them up with a tractor beam.
Volodymyr Lisivka
Use solar-powered laser to evaporate them or to change their orbits.
Qfman
They should mechanically compress a spring. Use the stored energy to deorbit the junk and boost the device to the next bit of junk. They can impart a precision amount of energy to the two parts by controlling the amount of compression applied to the spring before releasing it.
Galane
I'd try for a 'flypaper' solution, a large and flexible panel coated with a thick layer of adhesive that stays flexible and sticky in the vacuum and temperature extremes in orbit. The adhesive would also have to NOT respond to hard impacts like Silly Putty does. Everything hitting it should stick and embed without having any 'backscatter' of debris. Once attaining a full coating of junk the panel could be rolled up and put back into its canister for deorbit and parachute return to Earth. The debris could be studied and safely disposed, then the canister and other components re-used. The panels could also be attached to space stations and satellites as a sort of debris armor. Got chunk on track to make a near hit on your station? Grab a sticky with a robot arm and catch it.
BobMunck
This is a necessary step toward the deployment of space elevators, and is beginning none-too-soon.
John Pettitt
You dont need to trap the debris. For most things, all you need to do is slow the stuff down and it will burn up in the atmosphere.