space junk space debris

Space Junk Debris Harpooning Talks Underway At European Space Agency

Space debris, often called space junk, is a growing hazard in low-earth orbit. This week’s 6th European Conference on Space Debris is currently being held in Darmstadt, Germany to allow members of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the concerned public to address the problem of space junk leftover from the approximately 4,900 launches that have occurred from the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950s through 2012.

The ESA said that the bulk of the space junk comes from two sources — 240 explosions in orbiting craft and “fewer than 10 known collisions” between two or more orbiting craft. They said that both American and European estimates agree that there are over 23,000 objects larger than 5 to 10 centimeters spinning around the earth at speeds of around 25,000 kilometers per hour.

Whew. That’s a lot of hazardous debris floating around.

One space technology company, Astrium, is proposing a specialized harpoon that can catch the estimated 6,000 tons of dangerous debris and remove it from low-earth orbit.

Astrium engineer Jaime Reed told CNN that the full proposal will be unveiled on Wednesday. In essence, though, the plan involves a so-called chase satellite that will deploy a tiny barbed harpoon to catch nuisance pieces of space junk so that they can be towed back toward the atmosphere. Small pieces of junk can then be dropped to burn up harmlessly as they fall through the air — similar to the way that small bits of space dust streak through the sky as meteors as they burn up before hitting the earth.

The solution might sound Hollywood, but the problem is very real, and orbiting satellites are already under siege from space debris.

In March, we posted a video based on an Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) report which showed how Chinese space junk had knocked a Russian satellite off-track in late January.

As for the harpoon? Well, is it all that different from the so-called lasso that NASA has proposed for a future asteroid retrieval mission?

NASA Considering Plan to Capture Asteroid For Study

That extremely ambitious plan would have a NASA robot, with possible help from the Russian space agency, attempt to lasso an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter and then drag it back into orbit around the moon.

That plan would cut four years off a mission proposed by President Obama and others to send humans to an asteroid.

But if it succeeds and the asteroid is then mined for valuable minerals, it might astronomically increase the amount of space junk up there.

[artist’s rendering space debris courtesy European Space Agency]