An Orbital 'Pac-Man' to Chomp Through Space Junk?

A team of engineers has been at work for the past three years to develop a space cleanup satellite. The intent is to eliminate threatening, human-made orbital debris.

A team of engineers has been at work for the past three years to develop a space cleanup satellite. The intent is to eliminate threatening, human-made orbital debris.

The worry is not new -- there's lots of clutter to pick and choose from, be it broken down satellites to tossed away rocket stages.

PHOTOS: Satellite 'Flock' Launched From ISS Cubesat Cannon

A new entry to de-litter Earth orbit is the Clean Space One project, spearheaded by researchers from eSpace, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne's (EPFL) Center for Space Engineering and Signal Processing 5 Laboratory and HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland. [7 Wild Ways to Clean Up Space Junk]

Their intent is to trap a small satellite -- SwissCube -- tossed into space in late 2009. SwissCube is a joint cubesat project of various laboratories at EPFL and universities in Switzerland.

Sizing up the Situation This small cubesat-type satellite, measures just 4 inches by 4 inches (10 centimeters by 10 centimeters). Barring an unforeseen event, SwissCube's demise has been programmed for 2018.

The size of SwissCube makes it tough to grasp, but it also has darker and lighter parts that reflect sunlight differently, explains Christophe Paccolat, a PhD student working on the concept.

ANALYSIS: Sun Drags Space Junk Out of Earth Orbit

CleanSpace One could be launched as early as 2018 in collaboration with the company S3, headquartered in Payerne. The engineering team is reporting a major step forward in designing an approach and capture system – a so-called "Pac-Man" solution.

The prototype CleanSpaceOne resembles a net in the form of a cone that unfolds and then closes back down once it has captured the small satellite. It will trap the small satellite and the two would combust together in the atmosphere.

Other work on the initiative involves creating and testing visual approach algorithms on the cleanup satellite's cameras. To be accurate, they must take into account a variety of parameters, a team press statement notes, such as the angle of illumination of the sun and the relative speed at which the cubesat is moving through space.

Larger Margin Muriel Richard-Noca, head of the project, emphasizes the extreme delicacy of the mission: "It only takes one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space."

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Adds Michel Lauria, a professor of industrial technology at Hepia Lab in Geneva: "This system is more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand."

The next stage of work involves fabricating a more true-to-life engineering model – which will be more accurate than the prototypes – and more extensive testing.

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An approach and capture system -- a so-called "Pac-Man" solution.

The world's newest satellite launch site is off to a busy start, with 16 spacecraft put into orbit within a week -- and no rocket required. What’s the trick? Well, the launch site itself is in space. The satellites -- tiny Earth-imagers owned by Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs -- were deployed into orbit over the past week from aboard the International Space Station.

NEWS: Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time

Read on to see stunning orbital photographs of one of the launches.

Planet Labs is the first customer to make use of a new small satellite launcher owned by NanoRacks, another commercial space firm. NanoRacks' so-called "cubesat deployer" (photographed here in action) was flown to the station last month and installed in Japan’s Kibo laboratory. The module includes an exposed back porch, accessible via a small airlock and robotic arm. Japan also operates its own cubesat launcher on Kibo.

ANALYSIS: ISS Astronauts Fire-Up Awesome 'Cubesat Cannon'

Planet Labs’ satellites are part of a planned 28-member network of tiny spacecraft equipped with cameras to continuously image Earth.

Like the station, the Planet Labs constellation, known as Flock 1, will fly in orbits inclined about 52 degrees above and below the equator. They will be lower than the station’s 250-mile altitude to prevent any potential collisions.