The First-Ever Mission To Clean Up Space Junk Has Been Announced, Critics Fear The Tech Could Be Weaponized

National Orbital Debris Program OfficeWikimedia Commons(GPL Cropped and Resized)

For the first time, a mission to clean up space junk has been planned, with a European craft scheduled to retrieve a derelict satellite in 2025, The Daily Beast reports. Critics fear that the technology could be used as a weapon by rogue regimes or terrorist groups.

Space junk has bedeviled the space exploration community for decades. Tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris, from chips of paint to Apollo-era equipment to defunct satellites the size of school buses, lurk about up there. Moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour, the bits & pieces could theoretically knock out a usable satellite, pierce an astronaut’s spacesuit, or even breach the hull of an occupied spacecraft, such as the International Space Station.

What’s more, what goes up must come down, and those pieces of space junk will eventually make their way back to Earth. Most will burn up in the atmosphere, but there’s a still possibility of space debris surviving re-entry and landing in a populated area, putting human lives at risk on the ground.

Now, the European Space Agency has scheduled the first-ever launch to retrieve a bit of space junk. The Swiss-designed ClearSpace-1 will launch in 2025, and its mission will be to latch on to a large piece of orbital debris — a 265-pound piece of an old rocket orbiting 310 miles above Earth’s surface — and then bring it back to the Earth’s atmosphere, burning it up in the process.

ClearSpace CEO Luc Piguet says that the mission will be a test to understand the craft’s capabilities and limitations and to iron out any kinks.

“We hope that active debris removals will soon become a standard operation in space,” Piguet said.

Though cleaning up space is a noble goal that will require years of effort and untold amounts of money, the technology being tested could also be used for ill, says Daniel Campbell, managing director of U.K. space firm Effective Space.

Specifically, Campbell says, a rogue nation or a terrorist organization could use the technology to effectively de-orbit and disable a military spy satellite or even a civilian satellite, such as those used for communications.

“There is of course a potential that certain regimes will find such technology abusively interesting,” he said.

Meanwhile, the problem of space junk is likely to only get worse, not better. Spacecraft are cheaper to build and are getting smaller. Indeed, India has already deployed a rocket that itself carried 104 tiny satellites. Similarly, some telecommunications companies are planning to deploy “mega-constellations” of small spacecraft that could consist of thousands or even tens of thousands of small satellites.