In the opening scene of the 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” two U.S. astronauts are happily orbiting Earth in their space capsule. One of the astronauts decide to go on a spacewalk which, as it turns out, wasn’t a very good idea. Emerging from the dark, an unidentified spacecraft is stalking them. It opens its claw-like orifice, swallowing the capsule and snipping the umbilical cord of the unfortunate spacewalker. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, 007 (Sean Connery) is getting naked…
Looking strikingly like the aforementioned fictional clawed spacejacking spacecraft, the Swiss Space Center’s CleanSpace One concept (pictured top) won’t be hijacking any manned spacecraft for nefarious purposes. It will in fact draw inspiration from nature to confront a growing problem for space exploration: space junk.
Whenever we launch stuff into space we litter Earth orbit with everything from flecks of paint to toolbags to entire defunct satellites. NASA tracks around 16,000 bits of debris measuring over 10 cm (4 inches), but millions of smaller bits and pieces are thought to be swarming up there.
Although space is big, the space debris problem is growing and several recent high-profile events have raised awareness for the merits of not littering low-Earth orbit.
In 2007, the Chinese tested their anti-satellite capabilities, blowing the Fengyun-1C satellite to pieces. Thousands of Fengyun-1C chunks remain in orbit today, causing a high-speed hazard for astronauts and satellites. And in 2009, two satellites — a defunct Soviet-era satellite and a functioning Iridium communications satellite — smashed into one other at a relative speed of 7.2 miles per second, generating 1,700 pieces of debris large enough to be tracked from Earth.
The more incidents like this happen, the more space junk is created, potentially creating a situation where space travel becomes an impossibility — known as the “Kessler Syndrome.” The hypothesis that we may be fast approaching a space debris “tipping point” is well documented.
So something needs to be done, and the folks of the Swiss Space Center at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) think they have an answer:
In the first instance, the team want to launch a small grabber spacecraft to chase after an orbiting piece of space junk. It will then attach itself to the object and then de-orbit it. The automated grabber will burn up in the atmosphere with the debris.
There will, however, be several obstacles to overcome. Firstly, the team will have to develop the engines for in-orbit maneuvering — most likely some kind of ion drive. Also, how will the vehicle grab (or dock) with the debris? Looking at the EPFL video, the grabber will unfurl a flexible “claw” that will wrap around the target — akin to the petals of a carnivorous plant.
The first target for the CleanSpace One spacecraft will likely be more symbolic in nature. The first Swiss satellite — the “Swisscube” picosatellite — that was launched in 2009 or its 2010 cousin, the “TIsat,” may be chosen as the first pieces of “junk” to be removed from orbit. Although they’re starting small, the EPFL team want to build a variety of systems capable of pulling objects of various sizes from orbit.
“We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites,” said Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass. “Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they’re sending into space. We want to be the pioneers in this area.”
As this is a university-based project, the spacecraft must also be low-cost, using “off the shelf” components, according to science collaborator Muriel Richard of the Swiss Space Center.
Although we may have to wait a while before entire manned space capsules can be de-orbited James Bond-style, a team from one of the smallest nations in the world are on the path to finding cheap solutions to a very big, global problem.