A garbage bag in space

What to do with all the man-made junk in Earth’s orbit

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When clutter consumes your basement, a well-executed cleaning does the trick. When human-generated junk clogs the Earth’s orbit, things get a little more complicated.

Low Earth orbit space debris has increased since the dawn of the space age. But the wake-up call came last year, when the U.S. Iridium 33 and Russian Kosmos 2251 collided. It was the first accidental collision between an operational and defunct satellite, and it produced large amounts of debris. The NASA orbital debris program office at the Johnson Space Center now predicts eight or nine such collisions will occur in the next 40 years.

An American firm has proposed a fix: scoop up spent rocket bodies, defunct satellites and fragments with a big net. Jerome Pearson, president of Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based STAR Inc., says the electrodynamic debris eliminator, or EDDE, would zip around using solar power and electrodynamic thrust. Then, using a tissue-dispenser-like net manager, it would release a net to envelop debris before tossing it in the ocean, putting it on a trajectory to burn up upon re-entry, or recycling the material for future use. Pearson envisions the EDDE launching on an existing rocket. Once in orbit, it would be controlled from a ground station. A full fleet would get rid of all debris under two kilos in seven years.

But responsibility over ownership is an issue, says Eugene Stansbery, of the NASA orbital debris program office. “The country that launches and operates a satellite is responsible for that debris, but there’s no treaty that says anybody should go and clean it up,” he says. With funding for EDDE development coming from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, security concerns have been raised. There is potential to develop space weapons to scoop operational satellites out of orbit, and Pearson says international treaties will need to be ironed out. A test flight will take place in 2014.

But, Pearson says, “if we want to be really serious about moving the space debris, we’ll need 10 or 12 EDDEs to get that down in a hurry.”

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