NASA Garbage Collector To Refuel Satellites, Use Space Trash For Mars Mission

From tiny pieces of metal to the lifeless bodies of dead satellites, there is so much space trash floating around in orbit that it’s starting to become an issue for spacecraft, astronauts, and the International Space Station.

NASA estimates there are more than half a million pieces of space trash floating above the Earth and until now, no one has stepped up to pay the clean-up costs associated with putting so many satellites into orbit.

Even the tiniest bits of space trash are zipping around the Earth at incredible speed and could pose a danger to passing spacecraft.

China launched their own space trash collector earlier this year and the European Space Agency plans to do the same next year, while NASA is busy awarding a series of contracts to deal with the orbital junk, ESA researcher Jason Forshaw told

“The space junk problem is a bit like global warming, getting governments to agree to fund such activities is difficult.”

[Image by johan63/Thinkstock]
[Image by johan63/Thinkstock]

Orbital Refueling

When satellites run out of fuel they’re useless, they essentially become very large paperweights in orbit so NASA’s first task is to stop adding to the space trash problem by making sure today’s eyes-in-the-sky remain functional.

To help with that massive undertaking, the space agency has awarded the California-based satellite company Space Systems/Loral a $127 million contract to build the country’s first orbital refueling spacecraft.

The robotic spacecraft, Restore-L, will be designed to repair and refuel satellites in orbit starting in 2020 with Landstat 7, an important Earth-monitoring spacecraft used by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. If the satellite can be repaired and refueled it can be reassigned to a variety of missions.

Restore-L will be equipped with an autonomous navigation system, robotic arm, propellant to refuel aging satellites, and a toolkit to repair malfunctioning systems.

[Image by NASA]
[Image by NASA]

Mars Mission

Another groundbreaking idea for repurposing space trash comes from Firefly Space Systems and CEO Tom Markusic, who proposes to haul the junk out of orbit and move it to Phobos, a moon of Mars.

While in orbit around the red planet, future explorers could reassemble the discarded metal pieces into usable spacecraft the same way a child would use a Lego set, Markusic told

“They could be reassembled and reconfigured into the types of hardware that our pathfinder missions, our human missions, will need out there at Mars.”

The big problem with this project is finding someone to pay for it. Markusic has so far raised and spent about $33 million for his ambitious project, but a second round of funding has stalled out for now.

[Image by johan63/iStock]
[Image by johan63/iStock]

Repurposed Rocket Fuel

Another space startup proposes to turn old dead satellites into rocket fuel that could be used to power spacecraft returning from Mars. The space trash is already in orbit so using the junk as fuel would drastically cut down on launch costs.

The idea comes from Neumann Space and uses metal as rocket fuel to propel an ion drive to generate thrust intended to power a spacecraft returning from Mars, as the company’s founder, Paddy Neumann, told Daily News and Analysis.

“We … believe that our system can solve many issues in space propulsion, allowing small space vehicles to do more with less.”

Ion drives aren’t as powerful as chemical rockets, they would never be able to blast off into orbit, but they require far less fuel than a conventional engine and can build up a lot of speed over time.


One approach-and-capture system designed by Clean Space One to minimize small pieces of space trash would use a net, in the form of a cone, to trap small satellites and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere where they would burn up together.

Another satellite, designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is intended to launch in 2021 and would be prepared to dock with dead and dying spacecraft to do repairs.

The Robotic Servicing Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) could push working satellites into higher orbit and even attach new sensors and computer components to repurpose the machine.

How would you clean out all the space trash orbiting Earth?

[Featured Image By Petrovich9/Thinkstock]