Space junk: A recycling station could be cleaning up in Earth orbit by 2050

Space junk: a recycling station could be cleaning up in Earth orbit by 2050
The International Space Station floats in orbit around Earth. Could a similar structure be designed to house a space junk recycling facility? Credit: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

There are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. If you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1cm in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth's orbit.

These numbers are likely to be underestimates. With more satellites and rockets launching each year, collisions with are becoming more likely. Losing a could mean your TV reception is poor or the weather forecast is a bit less reliable. But it could also mean aeroplanes can't navigate properly and people aren't made aware of a tornado that's bearing down towards them.

A long-term solution is needed to clean up space. The Gateway Earth Development Group is a collection of academics from universities around the world who propose turning this potential catastrophe into a resource. By 2050, Gateway Earth—a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other junk—could be up and running.

Earth's orbits

There are two main orbits that satellites exist in. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is about 200 km to 1,000 km above the Earth and is where the International Space Station orbits the planet every 90 minutes, along with thousands of other satellites. At 36,000 km, the forces acting on satellites cause them to stay in the same place within their . This is called Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). Satellites here are stationary above a single point on Earth, making them useful for weather forecasting and communications.

LEO is very crowded, and there is a risk of collisions here which could create a shower of debris so wide it collides with other satellites, creating more and more debris in a chain reaction. Eventually the entire orbit could become so full of debris it's unusable. A lot of debris already litters LEO, but technology is being developed and tested to remove it. The situation is more tricky for GEO, though.

In GEO, when a satellite comes towards the end of its life, the owners will attempt to put it in a higher "graveyard" orbit where it's left to drift about 300 km to 400 km away from an internationally agreed protection zone. But only about 80% of all satellites that reach the end of their life in GEO actually make it to the graveyard orbit. The other 20% need dealing with as a matter of urgency—and that's where a recycling facility in space could help.

Space junk: a recycling station could be cleaning up in Earth orbit by 2050
A computer-generated image of satellites in GEO and LEO, excluding the debris which vastly outnumbers satellites. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

Recycling in space

The graveyard orbit is effectively an abandoned junkyard with no caretaker. Flashes of bright light have been seen in there and it's believed satellites are colliding or exploding from unused fuel or degraded batteries, these debris have the potential to fall back to GEO, threatening satellites there.

The law currently isn't on the side of a collective solution to space junk. Even if an out-of-control satellite is heading towards one that's functioning and worth billions of dollars, international agreements forbid action to remove it without the owner's permission, even if a space drone could intervene and take it to the graveyard orbit.

By repairing, repurposing or recycling satellites and "space junk" at a facility in Earth's orbit, this material could help build future spacecraft or exploration outposts, like a base on the moon. Using what's already floating around up there means there are no launch costs and using those resources will reduce space junk. It's the equivalent of building a home in the UK from local materials rather than importing bricks from Australia.

Recycling satellites could provide not just raw materials for more construction in space, but a revenue stream to fund it. My research showed that an orbit 150 km further out that GEO Gateway Earth would have access to the whole of GEO. From there whole satellites could be taken by space drones into the floating recycling centre for a tune-up if needed.

Providing these services could bring in over USD$8 billion per year, but the space laws that would govern this work are outdated and need revising. Luckily, this is something the UN are already working on, and our members are working with them to overcome barriers.

If these satellites are no longer serviceable, the shell could be used for other purposes. Some of the recycled materials from space junk could be ground down and used to 3-D print radiation shielding for Gateway Earth. Studies have shown that the efficiency of solar panels from disused satellites only drops to about 24% after 15 years, so these could be gathered and used to power the station.

Some of the most advanced cameras ever built are in space. These could be refitted onto Gateway Earth or new satellites to scan space for asteroids that could collide with Earth. As the business of deploying and using satellites is set to grow at a phenomenal rate, having an outpost in orbit that can manage all of them will become vital.

Gateway Earth has plans to generate further revenue in future by acting as a space hotel, a satellite and spacecraft construction facility and a fuelling hub for spacecraft travelling between planets. We need a equivalent for the plastics wake-up call that people heard from Blue Planet 2. There is still time, but plans for cleaning up Earth's orbit need to be acted on now. Over the next ten years, 150 new GEO satellites are planned which will increase the risk of collision significantly.


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Jul 26, 2019
The idea of recycling old/broken/smashed satellites is a kind proposal, but a wild fantasy. We can't hardly even recycle our own garbage here.

Jul 26, 2019
Another idiot idea from the philo clowns at the Constipation. This is actually an idea espoused by one of the 3 stooges ingesting these threads... drag special-purpose, obsolete sats with widely-differing delta Vs to some magical workshop in the sky with all the suitable tools, pressurized bays, and exotic materials needed to turn them into something useful again.

Replace their dust-riddled and radiation-damaged components from many different 20th century countries with loads of specialized widgets from the surface. Return them to the proper orbits with vastly different delta Vs with shuttles and fuel again, from the surface.

And then deorbit all the leftover junk.

Like I say its idiotic.

Deorbit everything. Replace with up to date hardware launched on reusable rockets. Repair the very rare Hubble variants in place via well-planned, dedicated missions or bring them back with the USAF shuttle successor.

Jul 27, 2019
Deorbit everything? And how, pray tell, does one do that? the dead sats and debris literally have no fuel to burn.
Not to mention the danger of getting hit but someone needs to have a better plan than this.

Jul 27, 2019
Deorbit everything? And how, pray tell, does one do that? the dead sats and debris literally have no fuel to burn.
Not to mention the danger of getting hit but someone needs to have a better plan than this.
Your question makes it seem like you dont think its possible and haven't bothered to look. Why not? You assume you know more about the subject than me?
https://en.m.wiki..._removal

-My fav is a multipurpose laser platform. Sq miles of PV or even reactors could propel craft around the system, send power to the ground via microwaves, and deorbit debris of all sizes. It would pay for itself many times over.

Re; getting hit... stuff deorbits all the time. Right?

Re; better plan... deorbit in planned and controlled fashion is the ONLY solution.

Jul 27, 2019
Could use slip noose tethers and store them all on a giant rack like suspended christmas tree ornaments. Wait until solar forges are developed since reactors aren't ratified plus being LEO/GEO and all. Then melt all non-instantly reusable components when you have the forge working. Later turn the refinery station into a full fledged R&D station.

Jul 27, 2019
and at no point from being a storage rack, to a refinery, or to a R&D station does it need to be manned

Jul 27, 2019
sorry to triple post, but as an incentification you can use the new inflatable heat shields being currently developed to send back taxed components and precious metals, back to their home countries. The station would warehouse a percentage of the goods as profit for sending home foreign countries' materials.

the heat sheild
https://phys.org/...lds.html

Jul 27, 2019
@Otto

While you do raise many valid points about this proposal, I would also point out that the article is putting a 2050 operational date on it. And, as with so many other futuristic technology proposals, they are often wildly optimistic regarding time frames for achievement.

And you are the only one who mentioned 20th century satellites. I suspect (hope?) that by 2050 most of that stuff will have been dealt with out of sheer necessity in some other manner than this proposal.

As for the Air Force shuttle X-37, it is small. The payload bay is only some 7 feet long, not nearly large enough to hold something like modern communication satellites or Hubble. Yeah, they could maybe build a bigger one, but there aren't any proposals I'm aware of to do so. And maybe they could somehow robotically deorbit using the X-37, but I've not read any proposals for anything like that either.

Jul 27, 2019
And you are the only one who mentioned 20th century satellites. I suspect (hope?) that by 2050 most of that stuff will have been dealt with out of sheer necessity in some other manner than this proposal
So... this 'some other fashion' would be up and running and completed its mission by 2050, at which time this magical workshop in the sky would be available (so we scrap the previous $billion system), and able to gather up special-purpose commsats and spysats and nails and boosters and such, from many different countries using dissimilar tech, all with hugely differing delta Vs and originally fabricated using very sophisticated earth-based technologies and exotic materials, all irradiated and pockmarked and cratered from years in orbit, etcetcetc

-sorry I cant go on.

Its ABSURD.

Oh and still leaving all those unusable screws and wrenches and paint flakes and O2 tanks floating around
?

Jul 27, 2019
to send back taxed components and precious metals, back to their home countries
-by parachute, right to their doorstep, because refabricating and repurposing space crap for earth usage is so much more economical than making them from scratch using earth factories, refineries, and technicians who are already making tons and 1000s of similar such things, every day.

Christ.

Jul 27, 2019
As for the Air Force shuttle X-37, it is small. The payload bay is only some 7 feet long, not nearly large enough to hold something like modern communication satellites or Hubble. Yeah, they could maybe build a bigger one
-which is what you would have to do to move sats from geostationary orbit 10s of 1000s of miles in the opposite direction, to this magical workshop with all the necessary tools, parts, and techs... and then back again... 3 or maybe 4 times a year at most.

Does that sound cost effective to you?

Youll note that musks commsat constellation is already replacing obsolete sats. This is the pace of tech innovation. You dont reuse, you scrap.

Jul 27, 2019
How does reusable components and precious metals equal "space crap"? And what does it matter what countries do with their materials after they get them back when you get a taxed percentage of it?

Jul 27, 2019
How does reusable components and precious metals equal "space crap"? And what does it matter what countries do with their materials after they get them back when you get a taxed percentage of it?
Translation: deem worn-out, special-purpose, obsolete components 'reusable', send them back to countries and companies who dont want them and can't use them, and get taxpayers to pay for it.

You're a democrat aren't you?

Re: precious metals, how much of this is sent into orbit in a reusable form? For instance

"The US-based industry association finds the amount of silver loading may fall from 130 mg per cell in 2016 to approximately 65 mg by 2028"

-And do you know what you have to do to reclaim this stuff?
https://youtu.be/ilu3yOrHH6s

Question: just how much of a typical 20yo sat do you think is reusable and how much must be fabricated on earth? And just how would you test and recertify such Frankensteins in orbit? How do you build a clean room in orbit???

Jul 27, 2019
Your translation doesn't follow with my idea. I didn't say "special purpose" nor did I say "worn-out". You can stop being a blowhard republican and carefully reread my first post. I said "non-instantly reusable components". Post sources with your quotes as well.

Reclaiming proficiency will be determined by the modules developed to do the job. And every task inherit in making the structures I mentioned would be tackled modularly and without any pressurized spaces. If you don't like the idea, I assure you Ghost, no one's asking you to develop these modules.

Jul 27, 2019
or we can follow your idea I'm assuming and drum up some global accord to do a mass deorbit with drones or something

good luck with that

Jul 27, 2019
I didn't say "special purpose" nor did I say "worn-out"
Well you can pretend the stuff sent into space is something other than what it is. They dont even recycle the stuff here on earth.
https://www.baker...me-kids/
Post sources with your quotes as well
I did. They're called quotation marks. Drop them into Google like everybody else.
no one's asking you to develop these modules
Modules. Magical modules that work with all the different types and sizes and functions of very complex sats from all over the world which represent rapidly-evolving tech. For assembly and validation in a vast orbiting Raytheon facility in the sky.

Easy to use words like 'module' when you have no idea how complex and dedicated a typical sat is.

Jul 27, 2019
we can follow your idea I'm assuming and drum up some global accord to do a mass deorbit with drones or something
Yeah I already posted the deorbit option link above. If you're not going to read the thread why are you participating?

"Cleanroom preparation minimizes late-cycle defects by reducing production variables. Every cleanroom is unique. Depending on the application and sensitivity of the device in question, a different cleanroom design may be deployed to balance cleanliness with operating costs."

They can cost $1000s per sf. They require massive utility support, validation, and service. Microgravity cleanrooms? Radiation-hardened testing equipt??

"The recommended air changes per hour for an ISO class 1 clean room is 500-750, and the [HEPA filter] ceiling coverage should be 80–100%."

Jul 27, 2019
- Coming from the person who uses the term magical in every other post.

If you can't imagine a space recycling project then why are you even bothering to post under an article about the construction of a space recycling project. It's allright if you lack any mechanical proficiency, just keep it to yourself. Stick to what YOU'RE good at.

Jul 27, 2019
Of course I should've realized that this has already been debunked...

""These objects are made out of very specific materials that are very expensive to produce, and it is tempting to think of them as a resource just waiting to be used," Grey explained. "The problem with this idea comes from the effort needed to catch and utilize these "resources.""

"Grey explained that objects in low Earth orbit move extremely fast, around 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) per second. That makes them difficult to catch; building rockets designed to run down such speedy debris would be too costly for the effort."

-Thats Stuart Grey, a mechanical and aerospace engineering teaching fellow at Scotland's University of Strathclyde. Why dont you argue with him?

"But WHY mommy??"

Jul 27, 2019
Yeah I already posted the deorbit option link above.


and low and behold what does it say?:

International regulation
Holger Krag of the European Space Agency states that as of 2017 there is no binding international regulatory framework with no progress occurring at the respective UN body in Vienna.[58]


So therefore, cool lasers are just cool lasers. You can't just go dunking sats willy nilly, without something in writing.

Jul 27, 2019
Sats are already deorbited all the time.

Jul 27, 2019
Ok then, Stuart Grey says: "The problem with this idea comes from the effort needed to catch and utilize these "resources."

If we can send the spacecraft Juno to Jupiter and hit a perfectly timed burn and map the entire planet in a tightly hugging orbit millions of miles away from the Earth, then we can run down and catch satellites in LEO and GEO. LEO will be harder, but you have to understand drones will drop down to them and burn back up. And as with star link, they will obviously have auto collision avoidance. Grey makes a point sure, but a very little one considering whats already been done in space exploration. Autonomous rendezvous are not new thing.

Jul 27, 2019
In the interest of fairness, here is a crackpot with a pedigree

"According to Eller, a recycler could either be placed in a relatively fixed location in orbit where dead satellites could be brought for recycling, or the entire facility could maneuver from satellite to satellite in a graveyard orbit. In theory, an in-space 3-D manufacturing facility could be attached to the other end of the recycler. As old satellites are ingested (think PacMan) and converted to raw materials, new satellite structures would be produced and pushed out the other end for in-space assembly."

-So he wants to make 3D printer material by zapping dead sats in a solar oven. First, drag them across the orbital plane at great expense. Sure, robots could do this. Then, disassemble and separate into usable and unusable piles. Ditto robots. Then, print out new sats and add components from the surface. Sure, robots could do this. Then, test and validate. Robots. Then, insert into proper orbit. Robots.

Jul 27, 2019
Pakmans a robot did you know it?
but you have to understand drones will blah
You have to understand that this not science, its economics. He also said it's far cheaper to do it the way it's now being done.

"This is not the first time that directed-energy has been considered as a possible means of removing space debris. However, the fact that China is investigating directed-energy for the sake of debris removal is an indication of the nation's growing presence in space... "The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser."

-Multipurpose laser platforms are inevitable. They can safely deorbit most everything and earn a healthy profit as well with power and propulsion.

Jul 27, 2019
Valid points, microwave energy sending lasers are another thing. I get that. However in creating a recycling station in GEO, you're also laying the path in creating R&D facilities. We need the abilities and services of void borne shipyards/assemblers/disassemblers eventually one day. Why not start now? Economic reasons? Doesn't matter to a private corporation if they are making a profit, and there's definitely profit to made in this case. It just takes ingenuity. And currently, the tech needed for all of this is very much on course. I.E. heatshields, automation, propulsion. It's all coming along.

Jul 27, 2019
you're also laying the path in creating R&D facilities
That's what ISS is for. You're talking about orbital manufacturing which may never happen. Meanwhile, laser platforms are inevitable. Profitable. A few decades away. Able to address the entire debris problem. And already being developed.

Game, set, match. Otto uber alles.

Jul 27, 2019
The ISS is a human habitat and science laboratory. I said no pressurized spaces, fully automated, and with a much more stable orbit. It's well within our means to do something like this, right now. No magic needed.

Jul 27, 2019
also, currently I think you would want the facility to be unmanned and automated to the teeth because of the lack of magnetic field out in GEO, which is full on space weather territory.

Jul 29, 2019
The ISS is a human habitat and science laboratory. I said no pressurized spaces, fully automated, and with a much more stable orbit. It's well within our means to do something like this, right now. No magic needed.
No, its not. Keep on quoting star wars and pretending you have any idea what youre talking about.

Jul 31, 2019
The only one sparking up star wars talk is you goldeneye. Your laser satellites weren't loved in Reagan's years, nor are they today. There's already talk in the UN about setting all this up. So you can keep pounding sand and play with your imaginary pew pew spaceships in your head.

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