Space Waste Removal: Dealing with Celestial Scrap

Humans are anarchy. They tend to leave trash behind wherever they go – and they expect someone else to clean up that trash. This is true even in outer space. Problem Orbital debrisAnd the attendant risk of colliding and damaging an active and potentially expensive satellite has been around for a while. But it gets worse quickly. In the past three years, the number of times these unwanted pieces have collided with working satellites has nearly doubled.

This, at least, is the calculation made by Daniel Olrug, the expert whose conclusion was drawn from his two posts. Oltrogge is a consultant to the Space Data Society, an industry body that feeds orbital and maneuver information from several satellite operators into a computer model that predicts potential collisions so that spacecraft, or at least those with suitable propulsion engines, can be moved out of harm’s way. Oltrogge is also the director of the Center for Space Standards and Innovation at AGI, a US company that develops orbital mechanics software that also helps satellite operators avoid collisions.

LeoLabs unwanted space radar near Naseby in central Otago was involved in measuring the risk of a large low orbit collision.


LeoLabs unwanted space radar near Naseby in central Otago was involved in measuring the risk of a large low orbit collision.

Part of the problem is the growing number of launches underway. On January 13th, for example, Virgin Orbit, a subsidiary of the Richard Branson Group of Companies, a newcomer to the market, is set to put ten satellites into orbit using a missile launched from a Boeing 747. 400 modified. Another part, though, is that every year, dozens or so of large chunks of debris orbiting the Earth disintegrate. About half of these explosions were caused by things like ignition of rocket fuel residues and the exploding of old batteries and pressure tanks. The rest is the result of collisions.

The result is a chain reaction of shocks in orbit. Unlike the fictional version of such a chain reaction, which annoys Sandra Bullock’s character in the movie gravity, A movie released in 2013, this real movie only picks up slowly, so there’s still time to wind down. But if action is not taken soon, premiums for satellite insurance will rise, spending on tracking systems and collision avoidance will have to increase, and certain orbits will become unusable. If things really get worse, the authorities might have to step in to restrict the number of launches.

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Drop shots

Stopping this scrap-generating orbital chain reaction means throwing a portion of the excess load into space down the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will be burned by the frictional heat generated by the return. A clean sweep is not necessary. Removing a handful of older neglectors every year would be sufficient. Exactly how much is it discussed. Yamamoto Tooru of the Japanese space agency JAXA estimated between three and seven. Ted Mulhaupt of the US Space Corporation, a taxpayer-funded think-tank, thinks the dozen. But even that seems possible. Except that no one knows how to do that.

People, though, plan to practice. One of the training missions, set to launch in March, is led by Astroscale, a company based in Tokyo. Astroscale proposes to launch a mission named ELSA-d from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This consisted of a 175 kg mother ship called the Khadim, and a 17 kg pod with an iron mooring plate that served as a dummy target. If all went well, the server would eject and retrieve the capsule three times, in successive harder trial cycles, before the pusher propelled the entire cappuudel into fiery doom in the atmosphere below.

In the first test, the service worker will use the springs to push the capsule out, and then, once he is ten meters away, he will approach it again, lock onto the docking plate with a lever equipped with a magnetic head, and pull the lever and pull it back into the servants. For the second test, the capsule would propel the capsule at least 100 meters before it began approaching it. The reaction wheel and a set of magnetic torque generators would put the capsule into a tripping state involving all three axes of motion, at a speed of half a degree per second.

This is, as it were, an important development – for orbital debris pieces that normally rotate in this way. So the real mission of landing an orbit has to deal with such rotating objects. Markings on the capsule will help the provider to determine the movement of its prey. Using eight thrusters, it will maneuver by itself until those signs, for its sensors, appear to be stationary. This means that its movement exactly matches the movement of the descending baud, so the magnetic head can be extended to perform its function.

In the third capture test, the server will first use its propulsion motors to retreat several kilometers from the capsule, placing the capsule outside the sensor’s range. Then it will search for it, as it should be if it searches for a real abandoned spacecraft.

And with all the technological prowess these tests require, the real neglectful pose a greater challenge than the delusional. For one thing, unlike the Astroscale bodysuit, few spacecraft are designed to speed up their removal. Also, those things that need to be removed are seriously heavy. A spacecraft that miscalculates while trying to capture such a piece of rolling debris can shatter into small pieces, contributing to the problem it was meant to solve.

Understand the matter

This commercial debris removal demo, a plan by JAXA to eject a discarded Japanese missile stage, highlights these difficulties. Before a spacecraft can be designed to capture any abandoned spacecraft it chooses as a test target, a reconnaissance mission must first be launched to study it closely. JAXA has awarded the contract for this part of the demonstration to Astroscale, which plans to do so with a vehicle called ADRAS-J, which will be launched in two years. To measure the movement and features of a portion of the missile that may weigh tons, the ADRAS-J will approach within meters only. Once it has gathered the necessary data, another spacecraft can be designed to grab trash on a later mission.

In this case, the magnet will not be used to counter the target, since ordinary spacecraft do not have iron in them. However, using a spear to capture such an object may be possible. In a test in 2019, Airbus, the European space giant, successfully launched a bayonet from a satellite into a piece of panels 1.5 meters away. However, these panels were linked to an extended boom from the satellite, so these were only preliminary experiments. Also, the spear can miss, bounce or cut off parts of the target – worse – which will then contribute other things to the Celestial Scrapyard.

Another option is to shoot the net. Airbus tested this idea in 2018. This test successfully encapsulated small “cubes” that were propelled seven meters from the net throw craft – although this net was not bound to the parent ship, which was thus unable to clear its orbit. Targeting. In fact, the ropes are difficult to handle with zero weight in orbit, which is why Airbus chose not to use one in this initial net-tossing experiment. And some doubt that such a cosmic Retary It is a reasonable idea. Astroscale chief operations officer Chris Blackerby predicts that the best approach would be to design robotic arms to attach to a target vehicle’s aerodynamic loop (the shallow cylinder that connects it to the discarded launch stage that lifted it from the ground), if this is still intact.

If all of that succeeds, JAXA debris demo will face one last challenge. This is a safe re-entry implementation. Many pieces of the re-entered Captive and Capture complex will survive friction melt and collide, quickly, on the surface of the earth. If re-entry occurs in a random location, the probability of human victimization will now exceed the 1 in 10,000 threshold that NASA set as an acceptable level of risk in 1995, and which Japan and other countries subsequently adopted. So the complex would need a steep slope aimed at an uninhabited area – possibly part of the Pacific Ocean.

Regarding the first clearance of actual orbital debris, it is likely a European affair, because in 2019, the European Space Agency awarded a contract to ClearSpace, a Swiss company, to seize a 100 kg piece of orbiting rocket debris. Earth since 2013. This mission is scheduled for 2025.

ClearSpace plans to use a pickup vehicle with four robotic arms. Unlike bayonets or net throws, this strategy allows for repeated attempts to recover. However, Luc Piguet, president of ClearSpace, expects his spacecraft to spend at least nine months in experiments near the target before it secures abandoned and is slowed enough to land.


The era of serious space cleaning is still a long way off. Besides the technological barriers, garbage removal will be expensive. In addition to the costs of pushing something into orbit, controlled re-entry of an object requires fuel, significant thrusts, and close attention from the ground controller. These things could run into millions of dollars – perhaps more than $ 27.6 million (US $ 20 million) – for the price of the ejection fraction. For example, the ClearSpace mission could cost up to 100 million euros ($ 169 million), although Piguet hopes the subsequent jobs will be cheaper.

Cheaper or not, however, the question remains “who will pay?” The scattered space is a biblical example of the tragedy of the commons, in which it is in everyone’s interest to solve a problem, but no one should be the only individual bearing the burden of solving it.

Therefore, solutions to the tragedies of the commons usually have to be imposed from the outside, often by governments. One idea is to impose a special launch tax, with proceeds from paying for clean-up operations. A more creative proposal is what Mulhaupt calls the “bottle deposit system”. The astronauts will pay a deposit for each craft they ascend into orbit. If the owners then fail to take their equipment out of orbit after its mission ends, then someone else can take the job, then collect the deposit. This would encourage people to build out of orbit capabilities in satellites from the start, so the Celestial Dust Workers would ultimately not be needed. The third proposal, suggested by Achilles Rao of Middlebury College in Vermont, is to impose the lease, known as the orbital use fee, for every commercial satellite in orbit. This will have the same effect.

Support for such schemes is growing, though they require international agreements between countries with launch facilities and an enforcement mechanism to prevent outside parties with lax rules from undermining the arrangement.

There is also another point. As Jean Daniel Testi, formerly the head of the French Air Force’s Joint Space Command notes, equipment developed to clean up the orbit can also be used to disrupt satellites. Tasty says that developments in orbital robots made by France’s opponents, not to mention the absence of any international “space gendarmerie”, are leading his country to plan a spacecraft to defend its military and intelligence satellites.

Tasty is shy in the details. But French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has revealed more of her country’s plans than her counterparts in other powers, including America. France expects to launch a special “surveillance” and “active defense” spacecraft to protect its assets in space. The latter is likely to be armed with powerful lasers. As Parley said, “We intend to obscure” the spacecraft threat. Preferably without disintegration.

© 2021 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. Published by The Economist under license. The original article can be found at

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