A little foam-spewing spacecraft could make a big dent in the space-junk problem in the coming years.
The Russian startup StartRocket is developing a "Foam Debris Catcher," a small, autonomous satellite that would snag and de-orbit space debris using sticky polymer foam.
"It's like a spider web," StartRocket founder Vlad Sitnikov told Space.com.
A growing problem
Earth orbit is cluttered with about 129 million pieces of debris, 34,000 of which are at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide, according to European Space Agency estimates. These objects are hurtling through space at tremendous speeds — 17,500 mph (28,200 km/h) in low-Earth orbit, for example — so even the tiny shards could seriously damage a satellite or spacecraft.
And the space-junk threat is rising, experts say, because we're putting a lot more stuff into orbit than we used to — and the numbers are poised to go through the roof. Humanity has launched fewer than 10,000 satellites since the dawn of the space age in 1957. But SpaceX has secured permission to loft 12,000 craft just for its Starlink internet-satellite constellation and has applied for approval to launch up to 30,000 more.
A crowded orbital environment increases the risk of collisions. And just a few smashups involving satellites — be they operational or defunct — could spawn enormous new swarms of debris, potentially instigating a nightmare collision cascade known as the Kessler Syndrome.
If we don't take action soon, Sitnikov said, "we will be in jail. We will be in a prison made by debris."
StartRocket wants the barrel-shaped Foam Debris Catcher to help keep us out of jail. The 110-lb. (50 kilograms) satellite would extrude lattices of foam when it gets close to debris clouds, trapping lots of junk. Atmospheric drag would then work on the encased debris, sending it down to its death in Earth's atmosphere.
StartRocket isn't alone in developing debris-mitigation tech. For example, some groups are working on systems that would harpoon space junk or snare it using net-launching guns. And others have devised friction-increasing "drag sails" that satellites could deploy near the ends of their lives, ensuring speedy destruction.
StartRocket has made progress on the foam but still needs to finalize the formula, said project leader Aleksei Fedorov, a chemical engineer.
Nailing down the formula and testing it here on Earth is the first big milestone for the company to meet, Sitnikov and Fedorov said. The second milestone, targeted for 2022, is the launch of a cubesat that will extrude a test sample in Earth orbit, to make sure that the foam behaves as planned in the space environment. If that goes well, StartRocket will work toward lofting its first functional Foam Debris Catcher, potentially as early as 2023.
Development work in these early stages has been supported by Kaspersky, a Russian cybersecurity company owned by billionaire Eugene Kaspersky.
"The solution being developed by StartRocket is an interesting example of how technology is changing and can be used to reduce space debris," Andrew Winton, vice president of marketing at Kaspersky, said in a statement. "We will watch the company's development and product progression with great interest and look forward to supporting the cause in the coming years."
But StartRocket — which made news in 2018 for a controversial plan, now on hold, to create advertisements in space using formation-flying satellites — is also looking to the masses to help fund the space-junk project going forward.
“We believe in the people — we're going to ask people to give us money," Sitnikov told Forbes. "It's like Greenpeace — maybe we'll be the second Greenpeace!"
The sticky-foam tech could also find uses far beyond Earth orbit, if everything goes according to plan. For example, Fedorov and Sitnikov envision the stuff, or something like it, eventually being employed as a cheap and efficient building material on Mars.
A barrel could be sent to the Martian surface instead of huge metallic habitats. The barrel would expel a big half-sphere of foam, and "astronauts can use just a knife to make the building, the habitat," Sitnikov said.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.