Space is full of junk; Boeing files plan to fix that

Oct 10, 2012

Here’s a solution for space junk – gas it.

A Boeing engineer from Seattle, Michael Dunn, has filed a patent for a method of dragging parts, pieces and defunct satellites into the atmosphere where they will burn up.

Geek speak: “… the method comprising hastening orbital decay of the debris by creating a transient gaseous cloud at an altitude of at least 100 km above Earth, the cloud having a density sufficient to slow the debris so the debris falls into Earth's atmosphere,” according to the document.

Essentially, as Geekwire puts it, “The clouds would be created by a rocket at an altitude of at least 100 kilometers. The gas would quickly dissipate, but would create enough drag on the space junk to pull it into the atmosphere.”

The online magazine New Science points out that there are other ideas floating around for taking out the trash:

Most space junk can burn up safely during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but that means something needs to nudge it out of orbit. The trick is, how do you deliver an orbital clean-up crew without adding more rubbish?

So far, ideas for sweeping up near-Earth space include attaching sails to derelict satellites to slow them down, sending tentacled janitor robots to drag junk out of orbit or deploying enormous robot-pulled nets to trawl for debris.

One problem with nets, sails and janitor bots is that they need lofting on orbital rockets that themselves could leave behind space litter.

This isn’t the first time Boeing has stepped into the space junk business. In 2010, the company announce that it had launched a satellite to track the objects. The company wrote at the time (pdf):

… a government and industry team led by Boeing Space
and Intelligence Systems helped the
U.S. Air Force take a significant step in its ability to watch, predict and react to what’s going on in space. The launch of the first Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) System satellite will give the military a sky-high perch from which it can see and assess orbiting objects.

What was once tracked only from the earth can now be tracked from space.

“This satellite is going to revolutionize the way we track objects in space by
not being constrained by the weather,
the atmosphere or the time of day,” said Col. J.R. Jordan, vice commander, Space Superiority Systems Wing, U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, who retired in November.

Boeing’s caption: The Space Based Space Surveillance System satellite, shown in this artist’s rendering, has a telescopic camera that will give the U.S. Air Force its only space-based sensor capable of detecting and monitoring debris, satellites and other space objects without the disruptions from weather, atmosphere or time of day that limit ground-based observations.