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Clearing space

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In 1978 Donald Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais wrote a visionary article about space junk in the Journal of Geophysical Research:

As the number of artificial satellites in earth orbit increases, the probability of collisions between satellites also increases. Satellite collisions would produce orbiting fragments, each of which would increase the probability of further collisions, leading to the growth of a belt of debris around the earth. This process parallels certain theories concerning the growth of the asteroid belt. The debris flux in such an earth-orbiting belt could exceed the natural meteoroid flux, affecting future spacecraft designs. A mathematical model was used to predict the rate at which such a belt might form. Under certain conditions the belt could begin to form within this century and could be a significant problem during the next century. The possibility that numerous unobserved fragments already exist from spacecraft explosions would decrease this time interval. However, early implementation of specialized launch constraints and operational procedures could significantly delay the formation of the belt.

This future is now our present. The US Strategic Command now follows a constantly growing list of over 10,000 objects in earth orbit. This trash is now becoming dangerous to missions like the international space station. A clean-up is needed.
Who can do this better than the Swiss?

The Spiegel reports

On Wednesday, researchers at the Swiss Space Center, based at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), presented their plans for “CleanSpace One.” They envisage a launch of their clean-up mission within the next three to five years, with the aim of taking out a recently-discarded satellite. If it proves successful, further space cleanup jobs could follow.

The proposed cosmic disposal service will be only slightly larger than the flying objects it targets for destruction. While traveling at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,400 mph), it will approach and catch its target using a technique reminiscent of the one that sea anemones use to catch their prey. “It sticks out its feelers and pulls its prey to its chest at the right moment,” [Swiss Space Center head Volker] Gass explains. Once that is done, the dance becomes deadly: The conjoined satellites race toward Earth together and burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

What’s more, since it will probably only measure 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters, getting “CleanSpace One” into space will be relatively inexpensive. “There are so many ways to launch small satellites,” Gass says. “For example, the new European ‘Vega’ rockets would be a good possibility, especially since the project was supported by Switzerland.” But he also thinks that an Indian rocket could do the job.

One of the most attractive aspects of the “CleanSpace One” project is that it will reportedly be downright cheap. Initial estimates put the costs for both its production and launch at 10 million Swiss francs (€8.3 million/$10.8 million).

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

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