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The Engineer Q&A: Space debris

Your chance to question our expert panel about dealing with the space debris that orbits Earth.

The threat posed by the millions of pieces of debris orbiting the Earth to our now-crucial space infrastructure has been a growing concern of scientists and engineers and, increasingly, the wider public for a number of years now. It’s even become the topic of an Oscar-winning film.

But while plenty of ideas have been put forward as ways to clean up our space junkyard, no mission has yet been confirmed to put any of them into action. There’s not even an international treaty to minimise the creation of space debris.

For the latest of our reader Q&As, send us your questions about the technical and practical challenges of dealing with this pressing problem and we’ll have a panel of experts in the field provide answers.

Some of the ideas for removing pieces of space debris include:

  • rounding them up with a large, passive sky sweeper;
  • capturing them with a tractor beam;
  • grabbing them with a harpoon or mechanical claw;
  • using lasers to shoot them out of orbit;
  • equiping new satellites with sails to pull them out of orbit when their mission is over.

Use the comments box below to send us your questions about any of the technologies above or about the topic in general by the end of Thursday and we’ll publish the responses in the next issue of The Engineer magazine and here on the website.

Readers' comments (7)

  • All of the current debris has been inserted into orbit during the current polarity of the magnosphere.
    As its polarity is known to reverse occasionally. what will be the reversing effect upon this debris?

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  • I read recently (in the Sunday Times) that there's enough space debris to seriously threaten future space missions beyond Earth's orbit. Is the situation up there really that bad?

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  • The Inter-Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee (IADC), the United Nations and other agencies have recommended the implementation of a set of guidelines to help solve this problem.

    The Surrey Space Centre has produced a drag deorbiting sail which could be the tool to do it.

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  • ...forgot to ask: if things are that bad then are there any internationally recognised agreements that make it mandatory for satellite operators et al to de-orbit their hardware once its finished its mission?

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  • From an engineering aspect the issue of Orbital Debris is quite solvable.The Swiss are developing the "Clean Space One" satellite to capture and reel in trash and other companies like the Italian based D-Orbit and various US companies are looking into the problem. I know today we have a sort of "gentleman's agreement" put in place in 1995 that says any satellite from that point forward will have a "design to demise" aspect to it. Meaning there will bean exit plan to bring the satellite in and it will be designed in such a way that it will totally disintegrate in the atmosphere or its re-entry point will be in an area where it will pose no danger. The problem is. What about everything before 1995? That's where the aforementioned companies and others come in. The issue really is what is being done to solve the more sticky wicket of the legal aspects of cleaning up Low Earth Orbit so that it can be used for future generations? That might be a far more insurmountable issue that the problem itself.

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  • I don't see that a reverse in Earth's polarity will have any significant affect on orbiting objects.
    The main trouble in getting 'junk' out of orbit is that we have to send something up there to catch it and that takes an awful lot of energy and resources.
    My idea is a giant plastic foam blanket that is sent counter-orbiting along a planned path gathering dust and small debris until it is beyond reasonable use then returning to earth and burning up safely. The chemicals for the foam are sent up separately and mixed to form the blanket in orbit. Start it spinning slowly to maintain its shape and hey presto.... A junk sponge.

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  • While the film itself is a little far fetched in some areas On the blu-ray of GRAVITY there is a brilliant little 'extra' about this scenario and the potential Kessler effect.

    It does seem there are 2 fundamental issues relating to recovering the debris in space. 1) preventing Kessler Effect 2) it is (can be) deeemed an act of war to try to remove something some-one else (another nation) has put into orbit. Therfor I have some questions relating to this.

    a) What is the current percieved 'best recovery option' for spce debris in an orbit that is not decaying sufficeintly fast to declutter space.
    b) What plan or plans are in place other than good housekeeping to prevent the Kessler effect, and indeed control it (as best possible) should another incident occur. Has anyone performed a global risk analysis on key infrastructure (power grids, barrage and dam control, oil well control, airspace control etc.) that relies on sattelite communications (by this i mean life threating infrastructure not trivials like mobile phone networks).
    c) Is there an international plan on the cards to declare all orbiting objects obsolete after a set period, such that any agency can attempt to de-orbit them.
    d) A controversial viewpoint, rather than trying to get debris to de-orbit and burn up in atmosphere through a zone packed with active sattelites. Would it not be easier to give it a little nudge into a deep space orbit and 'forget about it'.

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