- Scientists unveil a plan to convert debris from Earth’s orbit into rocket fuel
- This would involve satellites capturing pieces of space junk, storing it and cutting it up.
- A space foundry would then melt the debris into metal rods that are used for fuel
- New propulsion system ionizes metal and creates thrust to move objects in orbit
Space junk from satellites, rockets and humans is now cluttering Earth’s orbit to such an extent that some fear it could one day cause a catastrophic collision.
Just last week, crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) were forced to take emergency action after a The ‘reckless and irresponsible’ Russian weapons testing produced more than 1500 pieces of debris.
But scientists believe they have an answer to tackling this problem – and it could even help refuel spacecraft orbiting hundreds of miles above our heads.
Space Junk Solution? Scientists believe they have the answer for how to tackle the problem of debris in Earth’s orbit. It involves capturing, cutting and melting space junk into metal rods that can be used for ‘electric propulsion systems in space’. process shown
What is Space Junk?
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ in orbit, along with some $700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
This debris can be as large as spent rocket stages or as small as flakes of paint.
But only 22,000 are tracked, and with fragments capable of traveling at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000 km), even small fragments can seriously damage satellites or can destroy.
However, traditional gripping methods do not work in space, as suction cups do not operate in a vacuum and the temperature is too cold for substances such as tape and glue.
Grippers based on magnets are useless because most debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with debris, which can push those objects in unexpected, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have severely worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecommunications satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), about 9,200 tonnes of space debris is now floating aimlessly above Earth.
This dangerous spread of junk is already starting to interfere with existing low orbit missions and experts fear that unless drastic action is taken, it will only get worse.
One such idea involves an international effort to recycle this dangerous debris into rocket fuel – while still in orbit.
It will include satellites capturing pieces of space junk, which spin at 17,000 mph before being stored and then cut up using advanced robotics.
A space foundry that is currently being developed will then melt the debris into metal rods, which in turn will be used as rocket fuel for ‘electric propulsion systems in space’.
The first phase of the vision has already been demonstrated by Japanese start-up Astroscale.
Its craft, called ELSA-D, used magnets to collect space junk after its launch in March this year.
Separately, US-based Nanorocks is working on a plan to cut this debris while it is still in orbit and prepare it for the next recycling phase.
Also involved in the collaboration is CisLunar Industries.
American company is developing Space foundry to melt the junk into metal rods, which can then be used for fuel through a propulsion system that ionizes the metal and provides thrust to move objects around in orbit.
This system is created by Australian firm Newman Space as a way to extend spacecraft missions and move or de-orbit satellites.
The firm’s chief executive Hervé Astier told Guardian That when Newman was approached to be part of a supply chain to melt metal in space, he thought it was a futuristic plan that would not be ‘as easy as it looked’.
As the commercial space sector grows rapidly, companies are competing to launch constellations of satellites and new experimental craft into low Earth orbit.
How many objects are there in the class?
- Launch of rockets since 1957: 5450
- Number of satellites in orbit: 8950
- Number still in space: 5000
- Number is still working: 1950
- Number of debris items: 22300
- Break-ups, explosions etc.: 500
- Mass of objects in orbit: 8,400 Ton
- Forecasting the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models
- more than 10 cm: 34 000
- 1cm to 10cm: 900 000
- 1mm to 1cm: 128 million
Source: European Space Agency
He said: ‘But they got a grant from NASA so we built a prototype and it works.
‘Somebody can grab a piece of rubble, someone can cut open debris, someone can melt debris, and we can use that.’
Astier said it would be ‘like developing a gas station in space’.
As the commercial space sector continues to grow rapidly, companies are competing to launch constellations of satellites and new experimental craft into low Earth orbit.
This has left astronomers frustrated and struggling because of the ‘blasts in the sky’ that make observations harder and less accurate, as well as worries over space junk.
There are long-term concerns that this ‘free for all approaches’ to space would one day result in a catastrophic collision that could lead to a loss of connectivity to Earth, or in an extreme case, loss of life if a crew was in space. Yan was to be killed.
The worst-case scenario is a series of collisions between smaller and smaller pieces of space junk until the orbits become unusable, known as the Kessler effect.
It was proposed in 1978 by NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who said it could make it impossible for humans to leave Earth.