Grabby robot satellite could clean up space junk

Aug 12, 2011

Space may look cavernously empty, but in actual fact there's a growing cloud of debris surround the Earth from previous manned and unmanned missions, progressively presenting an increasing risk to further exploration. Now scientists have come up with the space equivalent of a Roomba, only instead of sucking up junk it would grab it, glue a rocket to it, and then send it hurtling to the Earth's atmosphere where it would - so the theory goes - harmlessly burn up on re-entry.

It's the brainchild of Marco Castronuovo, an Italian aerospace engineer at the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, and detailed in a newly published paper titled "Active space debris removal - A preliminary mission analysis and design." He suggests deploying a double-armed debris-grabbing satellite that would rendezvous with an object, use one robotic arm to take hold of it, and the second to apply a solid propellent rocket.

Castronuovo has reasonable conservative targets in mind, only envisaging the project removing 35 objects over a seven year period. Those selected would be the biggest threat to future missions, however, being a pick of the 41 largest in the sun-synchronous orbital region near the Earth. Should they collide, it's theorized, they could scatter into dense clouds of micro-debris that would be incredibly difficult to dissipate, and present a significant barrier to active spacecraft.

Whether the plan is picked up and acted on remains to be seen, however; it's not the only strategy that has been put forward for debris removal after all. Still, it's hard to argue with the need for such a clean-up, with the International Space Station being forced into evasive maneuvers last month when a potential collision was predicted.

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