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The Swiss Clean Up Space

April 1, 2012

CleanSpace One

No, this story is not April Fool. The Swiss, notorious for fanatic cleaning, are sending a special cleaner craft, CleanSpace One, to recapture their own SwissCube, an old decommissioned satellite. The idea is to bring it back through the Earth’s atmosphere to vaporize before it becomes part of the growing cloud of Kessler debris. Kessler debris plays a recurring role in my Frontera series, so I plan to employ the Swiss for this job from now on.

Besides, as you know, Switzerland is my favorite country, for its chocolate, its four national languages, and its cowbells echoing across Alpine valleys.

While this video of the Swiss plan looks exciting (those awesome grappling hooks) it raises questions for me. If cleaning up space junk requires self-destruction of a cleaner module three times the target’s size, does this strategy look viable to scale up? Does anyone have a better idea?

  1. April 2, 2012 2:04 am

    A better idea is attach a large surface area object to the debris and let the tenuous atmosphere force reentry. Of greater importance is the small debris – pieces of spacecraft as small as bolts. These need to be swept up in some fashion and deorbited. That is a harder problem.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    April 2, 2012 8:14 am

    I’d agree with Alexander; the real issue is stuff that’s smaller than satellites. Satellites should only become an issue when/if 2 of them hit “hard” enough that they both frag into a debris cloud.

    Also, if you need a “deorbitter” 3x the size of your satellite, what about when (when, not if) the first deorbitter fails? You now need one 9x the size of your satellite, and if that one fails you need 27x….

  3. April 2, 2012 8:37 am

    The smaller stuff is more dangerous, but it arises from collision of the large stuff. That’s why the Swiss said their aim is to avoid their own satellite from eventually colliding and producing the small stuff.

    I’m not sure why the deorbitter has to go down with the junk. Wouldn’t it make more sense to “nudge” the junk into going down?

    • paws4thot permalink
      April 2, 2012 10:22 am

      If you don’t get the de-orbitter down before it breaks or dies, you finish up with a big satellite instead of a small one.

      • April 2, 2012 11:41 am

        That’s true, if it only works once. But don’t you want one reusable deorbitter that takes care of a large number of junk pieces? Otherwise it’s like discarding the vacuum cleaner every time you vacuum one room.

  4. April 2, 2012 9:23 am

    The “nudge” idea to deorbit requires energy, probably fuel, and definitely working components. All of those are likely to be in short supply for a failed or end-of-life satellite.

    Now, a space garbage truck that’s resident at the ISS, and can either retrieve a bird or dump it in the ocean would be a good thing.

    Hello…. Quark?

  5. April 2, 2012 10:33 pm

    I’m starting to wonder if something like that mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion space drive NASA was fiddling with might work as a junk deorbiter. The idea is to use the plasma field generated by the drive as a tar-patch, to slow small bits of junk down without causing them to shatter. Enough passes through the field, and they deorbit and burn up. Or, depending on how the field works, they get hot enough to turn into plasma themselves, and disperse.

    This would require re-engineering the MMPP to be really ineffiient at propelling the satellite carrying it, but really good at stealing kinetic energy from largish particles passing through it. On the other hand, I suspect that getting an engine that does the equivalent of sitting there and pouring out smoke is easier than getting one that propels a spacecraft reliably.

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