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As we enter the era of private space, in which any old rocket scientist with a bundle of money can start an orbital enterprise, we're going to have to deal with a little problem we've swept under the celestial rug for years: We've turned space into a trash heap.
There are at least 21,000 pieces of orbital junk larger than 10 centimeters, with hundreds of thousands more smaller bits and baubles. It's the product of decades of space exploration, whether it's pieces of trash left behind from orbital missions or bits of destroyed junk from failed satellites. Junk begets more junk; Ecuador's lone satellite was rendered inoperable by space debris, and that's only one example in a long line of trash mishaps.
In other words, as space gets more popular, people are going to find it's already pretty crowded. That means it's time to clean up. Researchers at EPFL, the Swiss federal technology institute, plan on becoming the world's space garbage collectors with a satellite—naturally called CleanSpace One.
The small satellite is a kamikaze janitor: A robot claw extends from one end of its module, grabs a piece of debris, and carries it off on a descent trajectory to burn up in the atmosphere. When we checked in on the project earlier this year, the plan was to snag Swisscube, Switzerland's first satellite. The nanosatellite was launched in 2009, and completed its mission in 2011; now it's a 10-centimeter dead cube that's floating around, waiting to smash something.
EPFL now reportedly ready to test out CleanSpace One. It plans on launching the satellite via the European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle (SOAR), a low-cost space plane designed to be launched from the back of an Airbus A300 jetliner. Swiss Space Systems, the developer of SOAR, is reportedly footing the bill for the planned 2018 launch, will will also serve as a demo of its lifting platform.
While launching a single satellite claw for every piece of space junk isn't exactly a cost effective method to clean up all of orbit, CleanSpace One may prove to be a valuable tool for removing and maneuvering the most dangerous space objects flying around. For the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, all of the expensive satellites zipping around, as well as coming space tourists, that's rather good news.