back to article Garbage collection – in SPAAACE: Net snaffles junk in first step to clean up Earth's orbiting litter

Scientists have managed to capture a small floating human-made satellite using a net deployed from a spacecraft orbiting the Earth for the first time. The plan is to develop this technology to collect space clutter, and clean up our home world's orbit. Space junk circling our planet is a growing problem as more spacecraft are …

  1. ThatOne Silver badge

    Partial solution

    That might work for intact CubeSats and bigger objects, but good luck catching the shrapnel sized debris with nets. Unfortunately bigger objects will tend over time to break down into smaller chunks due to collisions, chunks which will over time create even more small debris.

    We need to put in orbit an asteroid made of ballistic gel into which all this hypervelocity buckshot can go bury itself! Let it turn in different orbits until they are cleaned, then let it drop back to earth, despite its size it will burn up easily.

    (Shucks, no mad scientist icon)

    1. swm Bronze badge

      Re: Partial solution

      Or how about launching a large gas cylinder in a retrograde orbit and making a large gas cloud that would slow down the smaller junk so it would crash to earth? Larger objects would be more or less unaffected by this diffuse gas cloud.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Partial solution

        I advocate a large sheet of Kevlar-reinforced cling film for the small stuff. After all, a big vacuum cleaner counter-intuitively doesn't work in vacuum.

        1. Little Mouse

          Re: Partial solution

          Nets are so indiscriminate.

          We'll probably end up snagging some unfortunate space dolphins.

          1. Ragarath
            Joke

            Re: Partial solution

            Come on no one has mentioned LAZERS! We need LAZERS. Big arrays of space LAZERS!

            And space sharks to swim around in space with them on their backs.

            Just saying.

            1. anothercynic Silver badge

              Re: Partial solution

              LASERS. S not Z. *ahem* *cough*

              1. onefang Silver badge

                Re: Partial solution

                Bruce Willis and a large broom.

    2. wayward4now
      Linux

      Re: Partial solution

      "We need to put in orbit an asteroid made of ballistic gel into which all this hypervelocity buckshot can go bury itself!"

      I've read every post and this seems to be the best idea of all.

  2. Neoc

    Great, you've caught it. Sooo.... now we have a slightly larger but wobblier item in orbit.

    Note: yes, I did read the article - de-orbiting trials are for *later* experiments.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Great, you've caught it. Sooo.... now we have a slightly larger but wobblier item in orbit.

      The orbital-hygiene types doing this aren't idiots, you know! The test has been conducted in a low orbit, such that the cubesat+net will re-enter and burn up in a few months even without any sail.

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        @ Credas

        Great! Now you have gone and created a new jobsworth position for some creep, I can see the wanted ad now: Wanted Orbital Hygiene Officer, must have LEO and HEO experience.

  3. eldakka Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    And we're on our way to the sanitation ships of the United Galaxy Sanitation NGO.

  4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Go

    It's a very small step toward better recovery and preventing the Kessler effect.

    But who thinks "launch a satellite to deorbit a satellite" is a good idea in the long term?

    The real trouble with space debris is

    1) It's very numerous in LEO

    2) Quite a lot of it's <5cm across and invisible to ground based radar.

    This suggests some kind of small lidar(s) in orbit to map it with much better resolution then find some way to de orbit it reusably. My instinct is to use a laser to surface charge the debris and rely on the Earths magnetic field to drive them into a smaller number of more defined channels.

    1. Julz
      Mushroom

      Re: It's a very small step toward better recovery and preventing the Kessler effect.

      I guess the problem of having a powerful laser satellite with a targeting system that can spot very small chucks of space debris and that can point said laser and hit them long enough to either directly or indirectly de-orbit them is that, well, they might be used for something else entirely...

  5. Khaptain Silver badge

    Getting good at littering

    The Earth is already a nightmare, now space too is becoming a problem..

    Aren't there some lessons to be learned somewhere.... We are only in the beginnings of space travel and we have alreay created a mess..

    Facepalm at the idea that with all our intelligence we keep repeating the same errors.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Getting good at littering

      September 19, 1926 - H.L.Mencken wrote :

      “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

      [...]

      “The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Getting good at littering

      this reminds me of something I learned in biology:

      a) all living things eat

      b) all living things excrete (even dolphins)

      c) all living things make copies of themselves (especially bunnies)

      'b' is something that goes with being alive. Yes, we're CRAPPING IN SPACE, too.

      What's different about humans: we generally clean up OUR crap, and the crap of OTHER living things...

      (none of the OTHER animals are willing to do this, except maybe dung beetles)

      1. onefang Silver badge

        Re: Getting good at littering

        "(none of the OTHER animals are willing to do this, except maybe dung beetles)"

        Have you not seen dogs eating cat poo?

  6. MJB7 Bronze badge

    Small vs large chunks

    It's well worth removing the larger chunks *before* they become lots of small chunks.

    Also, the small chunks in LEO tend to decay quite quickly because of atmospheric resistance - something as big as a cube sat will stay up much longer.

  7. 0laf Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Yeah also wondered what the outcome was after it was snared in the net. I thought the net was supposed to be tethered to a deorbiting engine or a solar sail etc.

    Also I guess the small stuff doesn't matter as much since our space machines will be built to withstand micrometeorites anyway and paint and screws are basically the same.

    But we need to do so meting before we end up in the Kessler Syndrome

  8. James 51 Silver badge

    If it costs a fortune to get material into orbit, not grab it and move it higher up to be recycled? I am guessing the answer is because it could cost more than it saves but it would be a cool project.

  9. M2
    Coat

    Surely...

    you just launch a Dyson - after all, it's a vaccum cleaner....

    1. Blank-Reg
      Trollface

      Re: Surely...

      Mega Maid reporting in!

  10. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    This is a job for Roger Wilco. Period.

  11. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    Garbage collection technologies

    Let's hope they don't need stop the world pauses.

  12. Sanguma

    Salvage

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a well-respected international set of laws and behaviours dealing with derelict vessels already in place for the oceans and seas?

    I guess nobody's ever thought that salvage law and the like might have something to do with outer space. But it's exactly the same set of circumstances - derelict vessels on the high seas need to be brought in or sunk; derelict satellites need to be either brought in or de-orbited.

    I'd thought Elon Musk could've set this as a priority for his space business. The problem is that common sense isn't that common.

  13. SImon Hobson Silver badge
    Coat

    For the small stuff, surely what we need is a humungous fly paper

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From the toons:

    I am imagining one of those big horseshoe magnets from old 60's and 70's cartoons. But seriously, I know that much of what is out there contains no iron.

  15. MAH

    sent up a massive magnet...I would assume lot of the stuff would have some type of metal in it....obviously not all, but even the natural stuff from comets would have some metal in them.

    Now the challenge is not to make it so big that it pulls a comet out of its orbit and make things much worse in a hurry :)

  16. Claptrap314 Bronze badge
    Holmes

    Orbital velocities

    Really annoying to see this sort of thing here. Again.

    Orbital velocity is almost meaningless in this context. What matters is the RELATIVE velocity of the objects in question. And guess what? For objects in the same orbit, this approaches 0 (like delta-d squared). So we're really talking about objects that are in overlapping orbits. Again, their relative velocities will usually be relatively low, because their eccentricities will be close.

    This is important because, despite the pictures, LEO space is vast. The gaps between most objects most of this time is huge. Any project of this sort is going to have to spend a LOT of fuel chasing down targets.

    This technology's military applications make much, much more sense.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Orbital velocities

      Clean up of space debris is one of the most common research projects chosen in academia. Loads of ideas have been proposed and plenty of brain power applied already.

      Requiring space operators to build end of life deorbit procedures into all objects being launched, include booster stages is going to be helpful.

      1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

        Re: Orbital velocities

        Requiring space operators to build end of life deorbit procedures into all objects being launched, include booster stages is going to be helpful.

        The problem is there's a lot of small bits out there. The bigger pieces like satellites are easy enough to spot, it's the tiny debris, like trying to avoid a USB stick on the highway while you're driving at highway speeds.

  17. Ian Joyner

    Plenty of dangerous junk here on Earth

    Like the plastic island the size of Texas in the Pacific. Supposedly to be cleaned up by some booms. But the rate we are producing this junk will probably overwhelm that effort.

    We need to stop producing junk in the first place.

  18. CentralCoasty
    Trollface

    The answer is in the video...

    Giant Spiders in space!

    Build a couple of giant robotic spiders and they can weave their own webs and then capture all the small flies...ehm... flying bits.....

  19. Chz

    I suppose it's better than by hand...

    ...but I really liked the anime series "Planates", which focused entirely on a orbital garbage collection crew on a knackered space station. 'Twould be cool to see it as reality.

    Highly recommended, by the way.

    1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

      Re: I suppose it's better than by hand...

      ...but I really liked the anime series "Planates", which focused entirely on a orbital garbage collection crew on a knackered space station. 'Twould be cool to see it as reality.

      Yes, I need to get a copy of that, it could be useful for a story I'm working on.

      1. wayward4now
        Linux

        Re: I suppose it's better than by hand...

        It's "Planetes" Had to go and look.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's a solution, but to which problem?

    Perhaps we should be looking at intentionally putting space "junk'' in orbit.

    well, maybe not "junk", but what if we could reduce Global warming with thin reflective devices that could harness a minimal amount of electricity, take commands to turn to stay at a set angle to the sun, could move to open portals for launches, or maybe just act like a stationary shield between the sun and the planet, etc.?

    May be a little far fetched, but no more than building walls under icebergs....

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: It's a solution, but to which problem?

      Nice idea in a sci-fiey kind of way... but do you have any idea of the amount/size of those things we would need? LEO is anything up to 2000km. Earth's radius is approx 6300km, so a sphere at LEO would have radius approx 8300km, and a surface area of around 865 million sq km. To block out sunlight we would only need a ring, though going +/- 23 degrees, so let's say we need around a third of that...

      ...then even if we could control global warming by cutting solar radiation by 1%, we would need about 3 million sq km worth of satellites to do so!!

      The only way what you describe could be remotely feasible is if there is a specific orbit that can be designed so that these satellites are always between Earth and sun... but is that even possible?

      1. Claptrap314 Bronze badge

        Re: It's a solution, but to which problem?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_point

  21. Comedy of Errors

    Nobody noticed it almost failed?

    Watch the video carefully. At the centre of the net there seems to be a large disc - maybe a cover?

    It goes first and hits the target which spins rapidly and almost knocks it out of the path. Fortunately the edge of the net JUST catches it.

    I bet if you did the same test 10 times around half would fail

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