Lots of people know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a collection of plastic waste caught in the swirling currents between Hawaii and California. Fewer know that there’s a similar floating junk yard forming in space, thousands of miles above our heads.
Every time we go on a space mission, elements are jettisoned before the craft reaches its final destination. This space “junk” is left behind when the rocket or satellite eventually returns to Earth. As a result, there is a large amount of debris orbiting the Earth—a problem that can mean huge costs for space programs if they collide with traveling spacecraft.
To combat this growing problem, the Swiss Space Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) recently announced 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. Dubbed the “janitor satellite” the CleanSpace One would be able to retrieve these floating obstacles in a safe and controlled manner.
Of course, this will be very difficult considering that orbiting debris can travel upward of 17,500 mph. To meet the challenge, engineers at EPFL are developing technologies that would allow the CleanSpace One to adjust its trajectory to match its target’s orbital plane, and then grip the object firmly enough to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Although its first model is destined to be destroyed, the CleanSpace One adventure will not be a one-shot deal. “We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites,” explained Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass in a statement. “Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they’re sending into space. We want to be the pioneers in this area.”
The design and construction of CleanSpace One, as well as its maiden space voyage, will cost about 10 million Swiss francs. Depending on the funding and industrial partners, this first orbital rendez-vous could take place within three to five years.