Space was long thought of as the final frontier and something in our sight but just out of our reach. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space making a 108-minute orbital flight over the earth. Fast forward to 2020, and half of our daily activities are guided and managed by invisible flying space objects called satellites. These man-made satellites help us with everything from weather prediction to navigation systems to providing connectivity to the remote parts of our planet. To know more about how satellites are providing connectivity to our planet, have a look at my previous post on SpaceX’s Starlink.
This newfound interest in space has led to a new race, not the one with USSR and the USA, but between private companies looking to provide everything from tourism to telephony. The Virgin group’s Virgin Galactic is offering the ultra-rich the opportunity to fly to space and experience it, while SpaceX is launching a grid of satellites to cover the earth and provide internet connectivity. Even though all of this sounds like peaceful endeavors, nations across the world are also trying to militarize space at the behest of keeping it safe and independent. President Trump recently announced a Space Force, while China and India have both successfully tested satellite destroying missiles in a show of might. With all of this activity and innovation, we have also been spreading one more thing in space – trash.
Each dot you see on this image is a known particle of trash or debris traveling at least 18000mph around the earth. The Daily Mail estimates that there are over 160 million pieces of debris floating around the earth. At this speed, if even a very small particle collided with an in-use satellite, it could damage millions of dollars’ worth of equipment or the satellite itself. While nobody seemed to care for a while, there has been a flurry of interest lately in how we will clean up our old satellites and debris.
Currently, there is no known way to remove this debris, but a recent announcement that the UK government is looking to raise interest in this highly skilled garbage collection industry with funding of up to $1.3 million. According to the Daily Mail, they have finalized 7 projects and are looking to fund further research to help the UK conquer this highly skilled and niche market.
In addition to the attempts by the UK, there are several other groups attempting to enter this lucrative market with their own inventions. Ranging from a space tow truck to remove dead satellites to a space harpoon that captures and drags satellites/debris back to earth are being instituted across Western Europe. Throwing their hat in the ring, a Russian startup is also looking to spray foam on debris and capture it like a spiderweb before sending it down towards the earth – expecting that the environment will burn it up.
While something like a vacuum cleaner won’t work in space – which incidentally is a vacuum itself, researchers are looking at all options in front of them. The space harpoon and other similar measures, which may again collide with debris and may set it off in the wrong direction and cause further destruction to existing satellites.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is spending a whopping $130 million on the ClearSpace-1 to launch in 2025 and tow a 100 kg adapter from one of the older ESA missions. Can you think of a better way to collect and dispose of space trash to save $700 billion worth of equipment? Let us know in the comments.
Fount of wisdom, insufferable know it all, make it go away are just some of the phrases used to define Melwyn. When he is not at his Consulting job, he spends his time reading about technology and current affairs.