Swiss craft janitor satellites to grab space junk

An artist's impression of a CleanSpace One satelite chasing a piece of debris
A handout image released by Swiss Space Center shows an artist's impression of a CleanSpace One satelite chasing a piece of debris. The Swiss Space Center at the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) announced today the launch of CleanSpace One, a project to develop and build the first installment of a family of satellites specially designed to clean up space debris.

The tidy Swiss want to clean up space. Swiss scientists said Wednesday they plan to launch a "janitor satellite" specially designed to get rid of orbiting debris known as space junk.

The 10-million-franc ($11-million) satellite called CleanSpace One - the prototype for a family of such satellites - is being built by the Swiss at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, or EPFL.

EPFL said Wednesday its launch would come within three to five years and its first tasks are to grab two Swiss satellites launched in 2009 and 2010.

The U.S. NASA says over 500,000 pieces of spent rocket stages, broken satellites and other debris are being tracked as they orbit Earth.

The debris travels at speeds approaching 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour), fast enough to destroy or inflict costly and time-draining damage on a satellite or spacecraft. Collisions, in turn, generate more fragments floating in space.

"It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation," said Claude Nicollier, an astronaut and EPFL professor.

Building the satellite means developing new technology to address three big problems, scientists say.

The first hurdle has to do with trajectory: The satellite has to be able to adjust its path to match that of its target. EPFL said its labs are looking into a new ultra-compact motor that can do this.

Next, the has to be grab hold of and stabilize the debris at high speeds. Scientists are studying how plants and animals grip things as a model for what would be used.

And, finally, CleanSpace One has to be able to take the , or unwanted satellites, back into Earth's atmosphere, where they will burn on re-entry.

Swiss Space Center's director, Volker Gass, said it hopes to someday "offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites."

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Feb 15, 2012
It's too bad you can't operate a vacuum cleaner in a vacuum.

Feb 15, 2012
Actually, since space is a vacuum, and this craft is supposed to clean it up, then isn't it a "vacuum cleaner" by definition?

Feb 15, 2012
feldagast...that 'very dense' nose would cost a fortune to put into orbit.

Feb 15, 2012
Why not put something up that would deflect the space junk back at earth, make it steerable and have a very dense and hardened wedge shaped nose. Items would bounce off the nose and be nudged back into lower orbit for burn up.

your idea makes no sense

Feb 15, 2012

The reason you cant do that is that a material hard enough to do this does not exist. You cant just sit in the path of some debris and bounce it back to earth. Even if you were to close the velocity gap just enough to survive the collision, there is this thing called conservation of momentum, so after each bump you would have to burn a bunch of propellant to maintain the same orbit.

If you catch up to a piece of junk, you can just attach a tether to it, and move on to the next piece of junk.

Before any of this is practical though, we need a fuel depot and spacetug/refueling sats in orbit. otherwise one space "vacuum cleaner" could only deorbit a few pieces of junk before needing to deorbit itself.

Feb 15, 2012
I really dont see the point of collecting all the junk. each piece they grab increases the fuel cost of getting to the next one. There are excellent tether systems that have already been tested for deorbit capability, and each tether placed would actually make it easier to get to the next piece.

Any space junk cleanup needs to start with a comprehensive policy to prevent new junk by adding deorbit capability to anything that reaches orbital velocity. Otherwise you just chase your tail all day long. After we stop making the problem worse we can then focus on cleaning things up.

Feb 15, 2012
If you catch up to a piece of junk, you can just attach a tether to it, and move on to the next piece of junk.

Pieces of junk are hundresds or thousands kilometers apart. You have any idea how much tether you'd need to lug along? or what the differential speeds between pieces of junk is - especially if they don't orbit in the same plane?

Why not put something up that would deflect the space junk back

That's not how deorbiting works. If stuff collides (providing you don't produce many more shrapnel pieces in the collision) then all you do - at best - is minimally decrease the orbital velocity of one while increasing the obital velocity of the other. This simply alters the orbit of both a bit. It does not reduce the amount of debris in orbit at all (unless you can get one of the pieces so low where it interacts with the atmosphere)

Feb 15, 2012
Do the math on that. You'll notce that that isn't nearly enough to deorbit a piece of debris. At best it gets it to a few km lower orbit (which is worse most of the time, since the most expensive piece of equipment up there - the ISS - is in low Earth orbit)

Feb 15, 2012
Pieces of junk are hundresds or thousands kilometers apart. You have any idea how much tether you'd need to lug along?

You have misunderstood me. The tether is only attached on one side. Think streamer. but the drag is actually electrodynamic.

Feb 16, 2012
A tether could easily be a hundred meters long

Have you done the forces calculation on that? Do it. Then calculate the weight of a tether that long that can withstand that kind of force. Then calculate the amount of fuel you need to get that thing in orbit and lug it around all kinds of orbits (including the spinning maneuver). Then calculate the weight you need to have a secure gripper/release mechanism that can hold onto an object of UNSPECIFIED GEOMETRY AND SIZE at those forces and release it with high precision.

See on how many levels this idea falls apart? And that's only what I could come up with while typing. If I give this a minute more thought I can probably tell you a dozen more reasons why this isn't a workable solution.

Feb 16, 2012
A problem easily solved with photon torpedoes.

Feb 18, 2012
antialias_physorg: No, I prsonally haven't done the math, but others have.

Did you even read your own link? This has nothing to do with what you proposed.

Reeling out a large line in LEO is not the same as.

- Moving a huge mass of cable repeatedly all over orbit(s)
- Securely attaching said mass to various irregularly shaped obejcts
- SPINNING the resulting object up to huge forces
- releasing with precision
- rinse, repeat hundreds of times before the teher and its craft become space debris themselves

Space (even orbital space) is BIG. Velocity differentials needed to deorbit something are HUGE. Get that into your head.

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