There are an estimated 129 million tiny bits of debris floating in orbit that, due to their high velocity, can cause catastrophic damage to space vehicles and satellites. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers are developing a compact orbiting device to semi-autonomously seek out the debris and catch it in a net. Designed as a system of CubeSats, each just 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm, the trash collector, called OSCaR (Obsolete Spacecraft Capture and Removal), will collect the tiny pieces of junk until it's full and then deorbit itself to burn up in the atmosphere. From RPI:
One of (the three) CubeSat units (in each complete system) will house the “brains” of OSCaR including GPS, data storage, and communication, as well as the power and thermal management systems. Another will hold propellant and the system’s propulsion module to drive OSCaR forward. The third unit will contain four gun barrels, nets, and tethers to physically capture debris, one piece at a time. This capture module will also have optical, thermal, and RADAR imaging sensors to help OSCaR locate debris in the vastness of its surrounding space...
“There’s an informal agreement that’s been in place for a few years that people who put space objects up there should be practicing good citizenship,” (Rensselaer engineering professor Kurt) Anderson said. “We envision a day where we could send up an entire flock, or squadron, of OSCaRs to work jointly going after large collections of debris.”
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If you were hoping that a person you detest will get hit by a piece of the out-of-control Chinese space station when it crashes to Earth the in the next few weeks, I have bad news: The European Space Agency (ESA) says the "average American citizen is around ten times more likely to win the Powerball lottery than they are to be struck by a piece of the Tiangong-1 as it plummets back to earth."
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There has only ever been one confirmed report of a person being struck by a piece of debris that fell from space in history: Lottie Williams, who was hit by a piece of a defunct NASA satellite as she walked through a park in Oklahoma in 1997. Despite holding what may be that singular distinction, William’s recollection of the incident may assuage any fears people may have about the Chinese space station’s reentry.
“We were still walking through the park when I felt a tapping on my shoulder,” Williams told reporters. That tapping was actually debris that had survived reentry and made it all the way from orbit to her walking path. “The weight was comparable to an empty soda can,” Williams went on. “It looked like a piece of fabric except when you tap it, it sounded metallic.”
There are more than 500,000 pieces of dangerous space junk orbiting the Earth, not including paint flecks and other tiny bits flying around at 17,500 miles per hour that put spacecraft at risk. The Brane Craft, in the conceptual phase at Aerospace Corporation, is a bulletproof "blanket," one yard across and thinner than a human hair, that the company thinks could wrap around space junk and pull it into the atmosphere where it will safely burn up. The project just received another grant from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program that funds radical concepts that may never work but would have great impact if they do. From Space.com:
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The thin spacecraft is not only lightweight, which reduces fuel consumption, but is easy to stack in a launcher and deploy in a swarm of dozens of bots, each on a track to a different rogue piece of debris. Brane Crafts will be powered by ultrathin solar cells as well as a little bit of propellant. The company plans to launch the craft frequently, with many Branes deployed at the same time, helping to reduce costs...
The NIAC grant provides two years of funding for laboratory demonstrations of the thin film. The investigators plan to outline how to develop the technology and which fabrication technologies hold the most promise.
"We're also looking at how we can get government or other companies interested in this to take this to the next level," (Aerospace Corporation principal investigator Siegfried) Janson said, pointing out that readiness for space would likely take a few million dollars.