Giant nets could remove orbiting space junk

August 17, 2010 by Lisa Zyga weblog
The white dots represent space debris that is currently being tracked by NASA. The dots are not scaled to Earth. Credit: NASA.

A dozen space vehicles, equipped with 200 nets each, could scoop up the space debris floating in low Earth orbit, clearing the way for a future space elevator. That’s the idea described last Friday at the annual Space Elevator conference by Star Inc., a company that is receiving funding for the project from DARPA.

Star Inc. president Jerome Pearson was one of the early pioneers of space elevators; in 1975, Pearson wrote a paper on the subject that inspired Arthur C. Clarke’s description of a space elevator in his popular science fiction book The Fountains of Paradise. Consisting of a long cable of nanomaterials, a space elevator would stretch from Earth to a point in geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles above the surface, carrying people and objects into space on its shuttles.

However, one of the biggest obstacles to building a space elevator is space debris: defunct satellites, fragments of rockets, and any unused object originally built and launched by humans that is no longer used. At the conference two years ago, former scientist Ivan Bekey pointed out that, if a were built, every single piece of would eventually collide with the elevator cables at some point.

Pearson predicts that, over a period of seven years, a dozen of Star Inc.’s Electrodynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE) vehicles could potentially capture all 2,465 identified objects over 2 kilograms currently floating in low Earth orbit. After capturing the objects, the EDDEs could either fling them into the South Pacific, send them closer to Earth where they would eventually decay, or recycle the materials. As Pearson explained, the aluminum and other materials collected by the EDDEs could be used to build structures that could host crews or store equipment.

In order for the 12 EDDEs to operate safely in space without colliding with one another, Pearson also emphasized the need to have some form of space traffic control. Already, he said, the US Federal Aviation Administration is looking into regulating space traffic, such as requiring space vehicles to schedule flight plans.

Star Inc. plans to launch test flights in 2013, and if everything goes well, could start removing trash in 2017. The company is also shifting the project from DARPA to NASA - and possibly later to the UN - to alleviate concerns that the EDDEs could be used for military purposes to remove enemy satellites from orbit.

via: TechWorld

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5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
Any chance of catching aliens with those nets? :-)
3 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2010
A lot of that space junk is not sat still but spinning and tumbling, I do not see it explained how your going to safely catch some thing with a net under those conditions?

The next thing is fuel for maneuvering? were is that coming from?
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2010
It seems like that amount of debris + sattelites is a signature we could look for on exoplanets as possible evidence of intelligent life.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 17, 2010
Consider that this "garbage" is already in orbit and that it cost over $3,000 per lb to do it. It might be better to collect it and store it in a higher stable orbit for future use.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
Consider that this "garbage" is already in orbit and that it cost over $3,000 per lb to do it. It might be better to collect it and store it in a higher stable orbit for future use.

I could not agree more!! Took the words right out of my brain.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2010
Consider that this "garbage" is already in orbit and that it cost over $3,000 per lb to do it. It might be better to collect it and store it in a higher stable orbit for future use.

... Thats actually not a bad idea... Though the article does mention "recycling" the debris, that could be a possibility they where hinting to.
4 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
whose going to make a net to catch the old net once it turns into a giant piece of garbage in its own right?
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 17, 2010
Ha, ha ha ha!

What an extreme over simplification! The volume of space that needs to be swept is ENORMOUS, and what kind of net is going to catch debris traveling at orbital speeds: Geosynchronous at about 6880 mph up to 28000 mph for the ISS. The only feasible technique would be to orbit in the opposite direction of the object and impact with it. In low earth orbit that would be 56000 mph. Good luck!

not to mention I don't get why only the low earth orbits need to be swept.

Oh, and finally, just because you sweep an orbit clean doesn't make it safe, another satellite collision and instantly thousands of new bits of stuff flying around. And then there is the endless supply of hyper velocity micro meteors, and various forms of hard radiation like cosmic ray's that are hyper accelerated atomic particles traveling near the speed of light.

You think machines get worn down on earth, space weather is much worse.

Essentially, this whole space elevator thing is way premature!
3 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2010
Ok, found a better description, the craft uses solar power & electrodynamic thrust for orbit shifting to "catch up" to debris at slow speeds and then "drags it below ISS orbit". Another description says it "flings the garbage back to earth."

I'll give them the orbit shifting for maneuvering to debris but the electrodynamic thrust idea doesn't sound like it is going to "fling" anything very far. Not to mention that in space the craft will be pushed just as hard in the opposite direction.

And as with anything else that spends a lot of time in space, your durability will be greatly challenged. Something that is extremely light weight may have difficulty surviving that long and avoid becoming space debris itself.
3.8 / 5 (4) Aug 17, 2010
Umm, didn't Wiley Coyote have a similar idea concerning catching things with a gigantic net...No, really, I mean it didn't quite work out too good for him either...
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
However, one of the biggest obstacles to building a space elevator is space debris

Really, that's one of the biggest obstacles? I can think of at least ten other engineering, technological and political obstacles that pose far bigger challenges than space junk.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
Oh, a dozen Wall-e orbiting the earth what a sight :-)

But seriously at the orbital speeds the best you can hope for is maybe change the debris' trajectory towards the atmosphere to burn up. But that means dealing with each individually (match speed & orbit then deflect).

Maybe we'll get lucky with one that lasts 700 years like in the movie.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2010
id sooner bet on giant solar panels beaming energy down to earth by microwave lazers (masers) . but i wouldn't bet on that.
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
However, one of the biggest obstacles to building a space elevator is space debris

Really, that's one of the biggest obstacles? I can think of at least ten other engineering, technological and political obstacles that pose far bigger challenges than space junk.

The biggest is probably the fact that it will never work.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 18, 2010
There was a space comedy TV series back in the late '70s called Quark in which the space travellers were tasked with collecting space garbage.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 18, 2010
I see a lots of very good critical analysis in the comments above. The volume of space to cover is absolutely gigantic and our current technologies are unable to produce a cost-effective way to get rid of space debris using anything material (net, collision, etc.). Any object greater than a dust grain can inflict serious damage to our satellites: remember how the Space Shuttle windshield was gouged by a flake of paint released by another rocket? It looks like the most promising technique is to use a ground based (or airborne) very high power laser to vaporise the debris. No need to send anything to orbit! Boeing airborne laser system has proven that it can perforate a missile skin from an impressive distance. This a very good - and practical - example of what we can do today. We need to be more realistic and pragmatic in our problem solving process!
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
well if there is lasers out there like u explained. they could be installed on to satellites. and to space station and have there own computer that has been programed with some sort of space junk tracker device.that scans all around satellites and such. and vaporise with laser. and if computer not sure of something send pic down for human eyes to verify.etc.or they could invent a net made from carbon or cavlar with magnats. that encourage space junk there way. and some how funnel or manove junk into some really strong no idea container drum made from carbon cavler whatever elements we are aware of here on earth that we could invent something so strong so junk does not rupture container etc. like a vaccum sucks it all in . invent vaccum/net/container to suck it up etc. then when full of junk install small rocket engine to container and send down to earth to land in ocean and then pick up with ship.who knows. all i no is that the earth and all the humans that live here as we do. page 1
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
all got along and no war. then no waste money on guns and all the stuff that goes into killing each other at war times trillions of dollers each year.and maybe only one leader that rules our earth we still have presidens etc but one leader above others one to rule earth he or she would unite all country all people. we be so far addvanced in tech if we all work together. all ideas shared with all . no war no killing waste of money you no nasa got not a cent in usa budget because they need the money for defence u see war just to kill what a joke.ok im going on and on i no. but i can also think about 1000 yrs from now cloneing growing spare whole new bodys. so that when they invent a machine that can download all a persons memory. that memory can then be downloaded in to your new body. so it like u never die cause when u wake up in new body that all new but it still your mind your memorys.that would be cool.ok crazy lady u think now too many movies. i guess like avatar.thanks people
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2010
5 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2010
As addressed in earlier comments, many of the debris elements are very small. NASA has a paper reviewing collision of the space shuttle windows with debris and mircometeors. How will this proposed collector deal with small washers, paint flakes, and micrometers moving at 17,000+ miles/hour? Further, this does not address the issue of Soviet nuclear reactors in orbit from their naval radar spy satellites, RORSATs. Publicly available estimates are 14 of them. The only safe locations for the reactors or other debris deemed to dangerous to burn up in earths' atmosphere are the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. For a space elevator, the space up to 62,000 miles must be cleared. My retort to this scheme suggested is like using a pencil eraser to clean all the sidewalks in New York City. And I have not even mentioned the debris from collisions and anti-satellite tests.
not rated yet Aug 21, 2010
On my opinion they are only 2 most effective solutions - gravity or magnetic field and increase friction. However the best of all is to simply make ships more stronger by some kind of field around them. Space junk is only the closest problem. Space is full with dust and rocks, we cant just go around them and energy field is the only way coz there is no material which can hold hit with 100 000 or more km/h.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2010
I would wildly guesstimate that wanting to catch all space debris from here to GEO would cost as much as all the combined money spend on space programs of the last 50 years? A more realistic goal would be to de-orbit the low hanging fruit/debris for three reasons,
1: it takes less effort/distance/time/money to get there and move stuff into the upper atmosphere and
2: the changes of getting hit by spacedebris are on average higher in the lower orbits since the volume of space swept is smaller than the higher orbits and thus higher relative density of debris per unit of space, removing debris here would free up more possible choking points.
3. LEO is the first place where (un)manned spacecrafts always have to travel through (even on missions to mars/outer solar system etc, and also the region where we tend to put our manned spacestations such as the ISS, this makes LEO a high priority cleanup zone, naturally one could identify other high priority orbits as well
not rated yet Aug 22, 2010
Why not just get 12 of our best baseball players and shoot them into space? :)
5 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2010
Just visited website ( )

here is some more info about these EDDEs

Apparently, since EDDE is propellantless propulsion (by use of tethers), they do not plan on "accidentaly" capturing the debris. They plan on CHASING each of the catalogued debris (thats why they gave the 2300 number) and capture it with the nets, at speeds of 2-3 m/s (meters per second, not kilometers per second!)
not rated yet Aug 23, 2010
at Ireland94
"How will this proposed collector deal with small washers, paint flakes, and micrometers moving at 17,000+ miles/hour?"

It will activelly pursue the debris... only the 2300 catalogued! So no, it wont collect all debris. It will capture them at low speeds of less than 5 km per hour. To do all that, the most important thing is their tether design, since obviously, you would need tremendous amount of fuel to change orbits or match speeds...

not rated yet Aug 23, 2010
It looks like the most promising technique is to use a ground based (or airborne) very high power laser to vaporise the debris.

Excellent idea, a laser could target these objects at extreme range - minimizing the effects of their extreme speed.

Large or very solid items that could not be completely vaporized could be shot from a high orbit satellite, the gas produced by vaporizing the space-facing side would gently push it towards the planet and help destabilize it's orbit.

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