Tungsten dust cloud: New radical idea proposed to clean up space junk

Apr 13, 2011 by Bob Yirka report
Schematic illustration of the orbital dust deployment. See http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.1401

(PhysOrg.com) -- Anyone who has been following space flight knows we have a big problem on our hands; one that is growing worse every year. It’s space junk, the detritus left over from fifty years of both manned and unmanned space missions that has grown, like the islands of junk out in the middle of our major oceans, into a major navigational hazard. But now, there is a new proposal to create a cloud of tungsten to bring it all down.

The idea, dreamed up by Gurudas Ganguli and his colleagues at the US Naval Research Laboratory, and published in arXiv, involves carting tons of tungsten (in dust form) into space and spreading it around such that it would eventually form a thin cloud covering the whole planet. The tungsten, would then adhere to the , causing it to become heavy enough (because it is a seriously heavy metal) to fall back towards Earth where it would burn up upon reentry.

The scheme is aimed at the tiny bits of junk; those smaller than 10 cm across that are too small to be tracked, and thus avoided by still functioning spacecraft; likely numbering in the hundreds of thousands, these small pieces of junk pose a serious risk to satellites, manned missions and the development of new space technology.

Many schemes and ideas have been tossed around for nearly as many years as we’ve been polluting the space above our outer atmosphere; the Russians are currently working on a project that would involve deploying a space pod with a nuclear powered ion drive that would fly around knocking stuff back down to Earth. NASA’s most recent proposal involves shooting at the stuff with lasers, while DARPA envisions giant nets that would gather the stuff together where it could then be dealt with in some reasonable fashion.

The problem with the tungsten solution, and in fact all of the recent proposals, is that they have downsides that keep them from being used. The tungsten idea for example, could conceivable wind up polluting outer space even more than it is now if the coalesces onto itself to form balls that float around up there and don’t fall back to Earth, giving us a Saturn like ring.

It’s also likely that the eventual solution won’t come from a government or one of its agencies, but from the brain of someone who sees dollar signs in trash collection, just as has been done down here in the real world for thousands of years.

Explore further: Why is Venus so horrible?

More information: A Concept For Elimination Of Small Orbital Debris, Gurudas Ganguli, Christopher Crabtree, Leonid Rudakov, Scott Chappie, arXiv:1104.1401v1 [physics.space-ph] arxiv.org/abs/1104.1401
via Technology Review

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User comments : 31

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ubavontuba
3.8 / 5 (20) Apr 13, 2011
They're kidding us, right? Or, do they actually think that combining orbital masses together and making them "heavy" will make them fall?

Wow.

It's not the added mass that would cause objects to fall. It's the change in momentum from hitting the cloud's particles.

Too bad it would also make it impossible to put new satellites in orbit (among myriad other problems).

Anyway, I've heard plenty of dumb ideas in my time, but this is one of the dumbest!
jscroft
2.6 / 5 (21) Apr 13, 2011
You're looking at this all wrong! This idea meets all three essential criteria of any huge government program:

- It's a demonstrably stupid idea.
- It will cost billions and billions of dollars.
- It is guaranteed to fail spectacularly while producing tons of unforeseen consequences to justify even BIGGER boondoggles to clean them up.

My guess is that the Obama administration is stockpiling powdered tungsten even as we speak.
sstritt
3.6 / 5 (14) Apr 13, 2011
They're kidding us, right? Or, do they actually think that combining orbital masses together and making them "heavy" will make them fall?

and why would there be reason to assume that the tungsten particles will adhere to anything? electrostatic force?
DUMB IDEA
Mahal_Kita
3.8 / 5 (13) Apr 13, 2011
Ok.. So they're contemplating seeding Tungsten, which is something like 1.7 times heavier then lead, in orbit in massive quantities. The idea was conceived by Gurudas Ganguli and his colleagues at the US Naval Research Lab. Right.. These guys get payed to think these things up? Right.. I'd like to know if the Navy still performs illegal drug tests on their personel. This sounds like heavy mushroom abuse to me dudes...
El_Nose
5 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2011
@sstri

I think he addressed that issue in his post...
It's not the added mass that would cause objects to fall. It's the change in momentum from hitting the cloud's particles.


as we all know it is the Kepler equations that most closely simulate orbital paths.
MadLintElf
5 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2011
Man, we just need a space roomba with packaging and launching capabilities, suck up the debris, send it down to earth in 1 lb packages.

Solar powered of course!
krundoloss
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 13, 2011
Yeah, its a stupid idea. What would work is something that will put the trash to use. It costs so much to put something in orbit, why dont we try to clump it up and create a space foundry, start building satellites and spaceships in orbit. Build it out of space junk and call it Enterprise!
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2011
And if you do a quick calculation then the amount of tungsten you'd need to spread around to augment each space particle of 10cm size by 1% would be astronomical (which would still not lead to markedly different orbits) - and if you add all the tungsten mass that would be uselessly floating about then the numbers just explode.

This has GOT to be the dumbest idea since...well...ever,
rgwalther
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 13, 2011
Better yet, lets send the Chinese oligarchy into space stretch them very thin and let their dense intellects deflect and deorbit the debris.
Fig1024
5 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2011
what we need is an Asteroids game that kids can play, but that actually remote controls a real satellite with laser beams :-)
Husky
not rated yet Apr 13, 2011
the most realistic solution would be lasers for the mere reason that millitary has wet dreams of destructive lasers in space for other reasons, the technology and budgets for lasers are coming forward as we speak, alternatively, hold on to your tinfoil hats as HAARP heats up the ionosphere, causing the atmosphere to expand dragging down space junk
Fig1024
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2011
Earth seems to be ready to reverse its magnetic poles, maybe even have several poles for a while. During all the chaos that will ensue, maybe some of the debris will break stable orbits
Tachyon8491
1.4 / 5 (9) Apr 13, 2011
I intuit that a couple o' billion tons of treacly peanutbutter at orbital altitude would do a better job. The only extra then is to provide all shuttles with good windscreen wipers. Alternatively a genetically optimised swarm of Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans could be released - so far they can "eat" iron mainly but could be adapted to consume more varied space-junk. The extra then, is a good anti-bacterial coating on stuff you want to survive. Ah, well, everything's got its challenges, right? How about an orbital robotised magnetic collector with IFF detection...
altino
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2011
Brrrr you are not thinking. Let us MAKE CANNONS TO SHUT DOWN MOSQUITOS.
Then BUILD A ABU DABI SIZED ROCKET AND SEND THE CANNONS TO ORBIT AND THEN SHUT THAT F:... GARBAGE DOWN.

This looks more cost effective, no?

ARE THIS GUYS F.... RETARDED?? HUMM OR WHAT?

WHAT?
Jimee
not rated yet Apr 13, 2011
Maniacal laughter as the atmosphere burns away!
mattytheory
5 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2011
No.
ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (7) Apr 14, 2011
I have a very nice solution...
designed it years ago...
exploit the forces and other things...
and is doable, withotu polition without ignoring physics, and so on... its quite elegant.

but i am not approved, and have no credentials.
so i must have nothing.. its an out of hand judgement
and a wall you cant break through.

meahwhile, to look at the list from russia, darpa, and nasa.. you realize that the best phd minds are so morubund that they have run out of ideas to copy...

So basically the best researchers in the world, and all they can come up with is bumper cars (russia), flash Gorden (lasers), and tuna fishermen (the giant unworkable net).

how about a much better idea which doesnt use a lot of material, which exploits the forces and all that, and cleans it all safely, and without polution, advanced targeting systems and problems like how to make a net stay open...

sigh...

antialias
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2011
What about all those parts larger than 10cm that are SUPPOSED to stay in their orbits? Like...oh...say... the ISS or all those nifty sattelites? Does the tungesten magically avoid those? Or do we just deorbit them along with the junk and call it 'collateral damage' ?
Beard
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
Make a solar powered, self unfolding, nanotube mesh net. Give it a very slow orbital velocity so that it travels slower than the debris. Eventually it's slow speed will mean it automatically reenters Earth's atmosphere and burns up along with all the junk it accumulated.
ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (6) Apr 15, 2011
why does you mesh need power?
Beard
not rated yet Apr 15, 2011
I'm not sure if it could unfold without a power source.
rynox
not rated yet Apr 16, 2011
Yes, what could go wrong?
trekgeek1
not rated yet Apr 17, 2011
I'm glad everyone thought it was as stupid as I did when I read it.
AlexCoe
1 / 5 (7) Apr 17, 2011
Just out of curiosity...
Does anyone know what the byproducts would be from just the tungsten cooking off upon re-entry? Since there are huge toxicity & health issues involved in the new "green ammo" using tungsten.
I know some very bright people in the military, but this is so "Military Intelligence" that it's not even funny!
Justsayin
1 / 5 (6) Apr 17, 2011
This offers a unique opportunity to synchronize the rates of descent of the dust and debris to create a sweeping (snow-plow-like) effect on the debris by a descending narrow dust layer
Graeme
not rated yet Apr 18, 2011
I was expection that the tungsten would pulverise the space junk into smaller framents so that it fell back faster due to air friction.

There are dumber ideas such as putting up spent nuclear fuel dust.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2011
Just out of curiosity...
Does anyone know what the byproducts would be from just the tungsten cooking off upon re-entry? Since there are huge toxicity & health issues involved in the new "green ammo" using tungsten.
I know some very bright people in the military, but this is so "Military Intelligence" that it's not even funny!
Uh tungsten is an element
Mahal_Kita
1 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2011
.. I know some very bright people in the military, but this is so "Military Intelligence" that it's not even funny!


Ha! It still is an oxymoron.. And this article proves that once more..
AlexCoe
1 / 5 (7) Apr 20, 2011
GhostofOtto, just because it's an element, uh it will form other non-elemental compounds upon reentry and burning up from friction. Some forms of tungsten (perhaps most) have some health issues associated with them. Research on implants using tungsten are ongoing and I suspect will find problems too.
Even the military has stopped using "green" tungsten ammo for those and other environmental reasons. National Park Service no longer uses it either and some other world armies are doing the same. They have found toxic, health and environmental problems with it. Now some idiot wants to circle the planet with it...
Javinator
not rated yet Apr 20, 2011
Uh tungsten is an element


High temperatures and oxygen in the atmosphere upon re-entry would oxidize it.
Silver_the_Fox
1 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2011
Just out of curiosity GhostofOtto, do you work for the military or have any form of govt job? Because that would explain your comment up there... just curious...
Well, since we are all coming up with solutions to this problem, I might have one, Not very cost effective, but it just... might... work...

SPACE SHUTTLES WITH GIANT BUTTERFLY NETS!!!!!
There's my idea for the govt that may be accepted due to its retarded nature... Check please!

Silver out.

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