Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The big junkyard in the sky

A potential way to address the increasing problem and danger of orbital space junk has been -- pardon me -- just floated for public perusal.

"The same superfund approach to those earthly pollution problems could be reworked to tackle space junk, according to the report, which is titled "Confronting Space Debris - Strategies and Warnings from Comparable Examples Including Deepwater Horizon." Superfund is the federal government's program to clean up the nation's uncontrolled hazardous waste sites."

One thing really interesting is that they find the same characteristics for similar problems.

  • Behavioral norms (past and/or present) do not address the problem in a satisfactory manner.
  • If the problem is ignored, the risk of collateral damage will be significant.
  • There will always be an endless supply of "rule-breakers."
  • The problem will likely never be considered solved because the root cause is difficult to eliminate.

(Climate change is in this same leaky boat!!)

So what technology could fix this problem? Well, they don't get into that:

"Developing the pathfinder technology now for such a remedy "may prove to be a wise decision" because on-orbit collisions are likely to continue to occur in the future, the report states. There are a number of space cleanup ideas floating about — such as using garbage scows, tethers, laser beams, giant foam balls and such. While outside the scope of their report, Baiocchi said, "it's really a matter of devoting resources. Eventually, you're going to get something. The hard part is convincing your friends in other countries that whatever you stick up there isn't a weapon."

So ultimately we might be forced to spend real MONEY to address the problem. Like climate change needing something dramatic (and probably disastrous) to garner sufficient attention for action, I think he's right about this:

"As soon as a DIRECTV satellite gets knocked out – or a GPS satellite or some other space asset we use – then you're going to have a lot of people up in arms about space debris," Welser said.

Moving on, moving on...

Now the USA and the country of France have decided to do a deal to address the space debris problem.

US and French defense chiefs plan to sign a space cooperation agreement on Tuesday designed to help track debris in outer space threatening vital satellites, officials told AFP. ... For years, the United States dominated space and saw little need to seek out international partners. But with more countries launching or operating satellites and the threat of collisions rising, military leaders want to promote data sharing with allies and industry.

Titled "Space Situational Awareness Partnership," the agreement is set to be signed during a visit to Washington by French Defense Minister Alain Juppe, who is scheduled to hold talks with his American counterpart, Robert Gates, on Tuesday at the Pentagon."

AND as far as actually addressing the problem, a fishing net company in Japan and the Japanese space agency are exploring the idea of using a net to capture space junk.


"The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Nitto Seimo Co. propose launching a satellite, attached to a thin metal net spanning more than a mile, into space before the net is detached and begins to capture space waste while orbiting earth, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday. As it collects debris the net would become electrically charged and be attracted back to earth by the planet's magnetic field, causing the net and its contents to safely burn up
in the atmosphere."

This might work; after all, the Japanese fishing fleet is responsible for most of the adrift "ghost nets" that snare and kill a lot of fish and sea turtles and dolphins in the ocean, particularly the Pacific. Glad to see that they've finally come up with a GOOD use for the concept!

Ghost net with captured debris:

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