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Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2014-01-17

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 Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) this week said they have developed a so-called electrodynamic tether made from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminium, which could help “reel in” the weightless garbage.

“The method is very clever, and if Japanese scientists can make it work it will be a big step forward,” said Holger Krag, a space debris analyst with the European Space Agency (ESA) in Darmstadt, Germany.

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 FRANCE 24. However, he said results from ESA’s own research into tether technology “had not been too promising.”

A test mission for the Japanese space sweeper is set for launch in February, researchers told AFP on Thursday.

NASA estimates that there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than an orange circling around the planet, some at speeds of up to 28,000 kph.

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 Hollywood screenwriters.

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.”

Both NASA and ESA have dedicated teams monitoring space debris, although the United States has the only capable system on the ground that can track the thousands of pieces of waste. “The US shares this data with us. A clean space is a benefit for everyone,” Krag explained.

The private sector is also lining up to play cosmos janitor. In September 2013, Swiss Space Systems announced it would launch a satellite meant to clear space debris in 2018. The first target of the satellite, baptised CleanSpace One, will be an out-of-commission Swiss nanosatellite measuring just 10 centimetres on each side.

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.

Date created : 2014-01-17


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