The Latest Space Junk Cleanup Plan Involves Harpoons, Tentacles, and Giant Nets

We're going fishing.

Feb 21 2014, 5:10pm
Space junk zipping around Earth. Image: ESA

The European Space Agency is getting serious about trying to clean up the space junk that threatens satellites in low-Earth orbit: It has just announced preliminary plans to launch one of the first debris clean-up missions in history.

As we noted yesterday, space debris is a huge threat to the International Space Station, communications and GPS satellites, and everything else humming along at 17,500 miles an hour around our planet. It’s a growing problem, as collisions and the loss of satellites create more junk, which remains in orbit for decades at a time. 

The ESA’s new e.DeOrbit mission is still very much in its infancy, but it’s the first time the agency has come out with anything concrete to tackle the problem. The agency says it’s considering “throw-nets,” “tentacles,” and “harpoons,” which makes it sound like they’re going fishing. 

And in some sense, they are. No one is quite sure how to best go about collecting debris and removing it from orbit. In 2012, the Swiss Space Center announced Clean Space One, which is essentially a robotic janitor that is going to use a claw to grab one of Switzerland’s earlier satellites. Japan has also suggested it might use a magnetic net to sweep through space.

A concept of what the e.DeOrbit craft might look like. Image: ESA

But beyond that, there’s simply a bunch of untested ideas. And the whole thing is definitely a high-risk proposition: The Swiss scientists behind Clean Space One say that it’s “extremely challenging” because a space janitor has to be able to detect and avoid other debris, navigate to something that’s moving thousands of miles per hour, capture it, and remove it from orbit without hitting anything else, which would obviously compound the problem. 

e.DeOrbit will be launched on an ESA Vega rocket and will focus on removing “debris items in well-trafficked polar orbits, between 800 km to 1,000 km altitude.” Jessica DeLaval of the ESA told me that the agency hopes to launch the mission in the early 2020s, so this is still very far off. They haven’t nailed down a budget, partly because they still aren’t sure how it’s going to work.

“We have some ideas and we have a goal but we’re still studying it. We’re considering several capturing technologies,” she said. “We haven’t decided yet which one is best.”

She also said they have identified some preliminary targets. An obvious one would be Envisat, an ESA satellite that has been in a zombie orbit for a couple years now, and one that some people have suggested is ripe for creating some cosmic carnage should a collision occur. 

More details will be unveiled at a conference about the mission in the Netherlands in early May, and we still have no idea what this thing is going to look like or if it’ll ever actually come to fruition, but hey, at least it’s a start.