The Swiss plan on playing a debris-clearing claw game in space. Image above and graphic below via EPFL
The United States is in the midst of a satellite crisis: of the 24 primary information-gatherers we currently have locked in orbit, only six are expected to last out the decade. Weather forecasters and government agencies are concerned, because the satellite blackout would leave a major gap in how well we can predict—and prepare for—extreme events like hurricanes.
But it's also a reminder that there are about to be a couple dozen more dead satellites circling the earth, and that the orbital graveyard up there is getting packed pretty tight—and that we should be giving more thought to what becomes of derelict satellites.
After all, there are about 19,000 pieces of space debris larger than 5 cm currently being tracked by NASA—debris that multiplies when other debris collides. Still with me? For instance, in 2009, a Russian satellite smashed into an American one, and a thousand new bits of debris were born.
Clearly, that debris makes it much more difficult to launch and maintain new satellites, and it's proved a major headache for the International Space Station, too, which has had to adjust orbit to dodge space junk. There's now way around it: eventually we're going to have to clean up the floating mess. Which is exactly what a new Swiss uber-satellite intends to do.
Called CleanSpace One, the monster has been dubbed the "janitor satellite." It's been designed to match a defunct satellite's orbital plane, grip it with a giant mechanical claw, and pull it back down into the Earth's atmosphere. Both satellites would then burn up upon reentry. We can only assume that the process will look something like this.
The Swiss scientists hope to launch CleanSpace One on its trial mission in under five years. The first target is the Swisscube, Switzerland's first working satellite, which was put into orbit in 2009, and completed its imaging mission in 2011. Even though the first CleanSpace One will disintegrate upon re-entry, the Swiss are planning a whole family of space janitors. Eventually, they may be able to dispose more than one satellite at a time.
It's a worthy project, and an aim that should see more consideration and investment. The possibilities of what we can do in orbit are only expanding: private enterprises now aim to establish orbital mining bases, tourism hubs, and more, more, more satellites. To make room for it all, space-faring nations and businesses are going to have to start running a tighter orbital plane up there—governments and corporations should be responsible for decommissioning their satellites themselves, designing satellites that self-destruct, or looking for more sustainable solutions.
Otherwise we're just going to have to hire these Swiss bots to grab all those dying satellites one by one and pull them down into a fiery earthbound grave. Next up: a vacuum satellite that can suck up all the smaller but still-deadly space junk.