In space, no one can hear you clean. But given the astonishing amount of trash in orbit around our planet, it's a chore that needs to be done no matter how quietly.
According to NASA over half-a-million pieces of trash, from decommissioned satellites to discarded bits of rocket parts, are orbiting around Earth every day, raising the danger of catastrophic collision with each future venture into outer space. With that in mind, a team of scientists from one of Europe's tidiest countries, Switzerland, recently announced plans to deploy a series of junk-collecting satellites to remove some of the dangerous space debris currently floating high above our heads as part of a project called CleanSpaceOne.
“It’s time to do something to reduce the amount of debris floating around in space,” says Claude Nicollier of the Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne. “Most debris comes from satellites that are no longer in use – typically they have run out of energy and their solar panels or batteries don’t work; when they collide it creates lots of debris.”
So how does one go about cleaning up space, humankind's seemingly immeasurable sweep-under rug? With self-destructing janitor satellites, of course. Taking a cue from nature's best grippers, Swiss researchers devised small orbiters which find and clasp onto intersteller trash before plummeting back towards Earth where both would be destroyed during the heat and friction of re-entry.
Given the amount of trash in space, and the potential damage to expensive satellites and spacecraft such debris could inflict, the scientists can see a future ripe with their astro-janitorial assistants.
“Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they’re sending into space," Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass told SwissInfo. "We want to be the pioneers in this area.”
If the idea of tentacled litter-busting satellites sounds like quite an imaginative solution for cleaning up space junk, it's certainly not the most far-fetched. In the last few years, a range of creative suggestions have been put forth to keep mankind's final frontier from looking like a dump -- from using giant gold balloons to gather junk or just firing lasers at it, to recycling that debris into new satellites altogether, the ideas have bordered on science fiction -- but then again, so does the notion that we've trashed space so much that this has become a problem in need of a solution.