Giant GOLD Balloon to Clean Up Space Junk

Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device (GOLD)
Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device (GOLD) can be used to aim the reentry safely into an ocean.

Scientists have been calling out for clever ideas on how to clean up space junk for years now, and with President Obama's recent backing of getting the outskirts of our planet cleared of debris, more ideas seem to be pouring in. Some have been way out there, such as shooting water at the debris to knock it out of orbit. But others seem slightly more plausible, such as the Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device, or GOLD.

The Global Aerospace Corporation (GAC) presented the idea of GOLD, a patented system that uses an ultra-thin balloon envelope -- thinner than a plastic sandwich bag -- inflated with gas to the size of a sports field (about 100 years in diameter) that will increase drag enough that the space junk will enter the earth's atmosphere and burn up. If it works, it could mean speeding clean-up of some object from a few hundred years to a few months.

The process, as summarized by Fast Company, sounds simple enough: "GOLD is not much more than a football-field-sized balloon (made of gossamer-thin but super-tough material, a little like solar sails) that is flown into orbit deflated in a suitcase-sized box and then fastened to a dead satellite. It's then inflated to maximum size, and the huge bulk of the balloon massively increases the atmospheric drag that satellites experience up there in the void. This drag is due to the rare molecules of gas that hover around above the fringe of the atmosphere. It's the same drag that resulted in the premature deorbiting of the famous Skylab satellite in the 1970s when the mechanics of orbital drag weren't as well understood. The drag acts to slow a satellite in its orbital path, and then simple orbital mechanics means the satellite descends into the atmosphere where the denser air heats it to the point it burns up."

While the balloon is thin and will get punctured by debris, the gas flowing into it will keep it inflated enough that it doesn't become space junk itself very quickly. It can be deployed from a spacecraft or rocket after a mission is completed, or even attached to larger pieces of debris with an orbital robot so that the big chunks of space junk can be brought down as quickly as the smaller stuff.

Hundreds of old spacecraft, rocket bodies, satellites, and other parts are currently orbiting Earth, and they are now a safety issue for new crafts launched for exploration. Not only can debris collide with functional crafts like satellites, but it is also posing a risk for astronauts.

According to Space Daily, "With GOLD there is a negligible increase in the chance of creating new dangerous orbital debris and once the object is removed from orbit, that particular threat is gone forever."

GOLD seems to be the easiest, cheapest, and least risky of the ideas proposed so far for clearing space junk. Now, it's just a matter of moving forward far enough with the idea to test it out.