Europe Explores Ideas to Clean Up Space Junk

ESA’s e.Deorbit
This capture concept being explored by the European Space Agency's e.Deorbit system study for Active Debris Removal capturing the satellite in a net attached to either a flexible tether (as seen here) or a rigid connection. (Image credit: ESA)

A new European proposal to get rid of space junk adds to a growing list of ideas to get rid of the manmade pollution currently orbiting the Earth.

Called e.DeOrbit, the debris-hunting spacecraft would zoom to a polar altitude of between 500 and 620 miles (800 and 1,000 kilometers) and then approach a piece of debris. After using sensors to move in close, it would then capture the junk in some way, perhaps using a net, or harpoon, or tentacle.

The CleanSpace initiative from the European Space Agency is just one of several proposals to get rid of space junk, however, with other ideas ranging from lasers to electrical currents to even air bursts. As engineers work through the technical issues, week by week the issue is growing.

"Decades of launches have left Earth surrounded by a halo of space junk: more than 17,000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup, which threaten working missions with catastrophic collision. Even a 1 cm nut could hit with the force of a hand grenade," ESA stated. [Space Junk Clean Up: 7 Wild Ideas]

There are in fact an estimated 500,000 pieces of debris of all sizes, NASA stated, ranging from paint flecks all the way up to derelict spacecraft. Any of these can be deadly to other spacecraft as they speed at up to 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h). NASA occasionally needs to move the International Space Station out of the way in order to dodge space debris.

This illustration depicts the amount of space junk currently orbiting Earth. Scientists estimate the total number of space debris objects in orbit to be around 29 000 for sizes larger than 10 cm, 670 000 larger than 1 cm, and more than 170 million larger than 1 mm. (Image credit: ESA)

The ESA proposal is not quite ready for primetime, but will be discussed at a symposium in early May in the Netherlands. Designers are grappling with problems such as the large amounts of fuel that will have to be carried on board, and how to get a possibly tumbling target under control.

The e.DeOrbit joins several other types of space debris removal proposals.

A Swiss mission concept called CleanSpace One would zoom into space from the back of a modified Airbus A300 jumbo jet, if it goes forward as planned in 2018. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency is reportedly considering an electrodynamic tether, and flying a part of the mission later this month. Other proposals would use slingshots, air bursts or solar sails to capture errant space junk.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: