Space junk littering orbit; might need cleaning up

September 1, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

Space junk has made such a mess of Earth's orbit that experts say we may need to finally think about cleaning it up.

That may mean vacuuming up debris with weird space technology - cosmic versions of nets, magnets and giant umbrellas, according to the chairman of an that issued a new report on the problem Thursday.

There are 22,000 objects in orbit that are big enough for officials on the ground to track and countless more smaller ones that could do damage to human-carrying spaceships and valuable satellites. The has to move out of the way of debris from time to time.

"We've lost control of the environment," said retired senior scientist Donald Kessler, who headed the report.

Since the space age began 54 years ago, civilization has littered the area just above Earth's atmosphere with leftover boosters and other parts that come off during launches, as well as old satellites. When scientists noticed that this could be a problem, they came up with agreements to limit new and those plans had been working.

Those agreements make sure what is sent into orbit eventually falls back to Earth and burns up.

But two events in the past four years - a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapon test and a 2009 crash-in-orbit of two satellites - put so much new junk in space that everything changed, the report said. The Chinese test used a missile to smash an aging into 150,000 pieces of debris larger than four-tenths of an inch and 3,118 pieces can be tracked by radar on the ground, the report said.

"Those two single events doubled the amount of fragments in and completely wiped out what we had done in the last 25 years," Kessler said.

All that junk that means something has to be done, "which means you have to look at cleaning space," said Kessler.

The study only briefly mentions the possibility, raising technical, legal and diplomatic hurdles. But it refers to a report earlier this year by a Defense Department science think-tank that outlines all sorts of unusual techniques. The report by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is called "Catcher's Mitt" and it mentions harpoons, nets, tethers, magnets and even a giant dish or umbrella-shaped device that would sweep up tiny pieces of debris.

While the new report doesn't recommend using the technology, Kessler said it's needed. He likes one company's idea of a satellite that is armed with nets that could be sprung on wayward junk. Attached to the net is an electromagnetic tether that could either pull the junk down to a point where it would burn up harmlessly or boost it to safer orbit.

NASA officials said they are examining the study.

The report is from the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which is an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on science.

Explore further: Space station's close call with junk: More to come (Update 2)

More information: National Academy of Sciences:


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not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
Be nice to have a manned vehicle with manuverability and maybe a robotic arm with cargo space to contain large pieces of debris and return it to earth or eject it to burn up on reentry.
not rated yet Sep 02, 2011
I'd like to see, one day, a space 'scrap yard' where highly refined materials could be harvested and reprocessed in space, instead of having to destroy them and spending more to send up replacements - obviously a long way off.

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