Japanese scientists are working on a cutting-edge space "net" they hope will help clear the massive cloud of debris that is orbiting around the earth and endangering working satellites, shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.
Often referred to as space junk, the debris includes non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle parts, mission-related debris and fragments of technology.
Researchers at The
"The method is very clever, and if Japanese scientists can make it work it will be a big step forward," said
Scientists want to link the 300-metre long metal strip to unwanted objects in orbit. The electricity generated by the tether as it swings through the earth's magnetic field should slow down the space junk, pulling it down towards earth.
Eventually the debris will enter the atmosphere, where it will burn up harmlessly, long before reaching human populations, according to researchers.
"This is a very tempting strategy because it does not require additional power. You don't need to bring additional fuel into space," Krag told
A test mission for the Japanese space sweeper is set for launch in February, researchers told AFP on Thursday.
Not just fiction
High-speed debris is the source of drama in the Oscar-nominated film "Gravity", but the dangers posed by stray space junk are not the brainchild of
Krag said dealing with space debris is not a new problem, but it has gained growing attention in recent years, especially following the 2009 collision of a defunct Russian satellite with a functioning US Iridium commercial satellite.
The crash added more than 2,000 pieces of new debris to the collection of space junk, exponentially increasing the possibility of new collisions and the unplanned creation of new fragments.
"We regularly have near misses," Krag said, adding that ESA implements special operations to avoid dangerous collisions about once a year. "Today, it has become part of normal procedures."
The private sector is also lining up to play cosmos janitor. In
Krag said that ESA still did not count technology for capturing critical objects and returning them safely back to earth, but was researching different methods including robotic arms, casting nets, and even a more "exotic" harpooning design.
He said the agency was investing "a few million euros" over the next two years for the development stages of a larger programme.
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