A team of Swiss astronauts and university professors are working to create a robot spacecraft called CleanSpace One, which will grab inactive satellite parts from space and bring them back to Earth.
About 700 active satellites are in orbit around Earth, sending us weather, phone, television and GPS signals. But they are in constant danger of smashing into old inactive satellites.
“It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its proliferation,” says Claude Nicollier, an astronaut and professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
A 2009 collision between American Satellite Iridium with an inactive Russian satellite caused $55 million worth of damage. The accident also left 2,000 additional pieces of debris in space.
Thousands of satellites have launched since Sputnik‘s 1957 pioneering voyage into space. Over 16,000 pieces of broken and inactive satellites have collected in orbit causing a risk of collisions.
Before CleanSpace One is ready for space, there are technological hurdles to overcome. One being the machine’s ability to come within range of an object in space, to be close enough to capture it. Another hurdle is developing robotic arms that can “grab” the item. After being captured, the debris will be taken by the robot spacecraft back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where both will disintegrate upon re-entry.
Although space junk has been proposed as a serious threat to NASA equipment and personnel, this is currently a university-funded project and not a full-fledged multi-million dollar development, EPFL members say.
The maiden voyage will cost about $11 million, which the EFPL space team is hoping to raise over three to five years. Considering insurance premiums for satellites already go for about $20 billion, companies may be prompted to donate to the cause so insurance premiums don’t increase if the problem gets worse.
Thumbnail image courtesy of EPFL.
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