How do you clean up litter in space?

NASA estimates that there are over 16,500 pieces of man-made space trash orbiting the Earth right now. This junk consists of old satellites, spent rocket stages, as well as other debris that we’ve just left floating out there. In fact, the litter has become so bad that there is now a 1 in 10,000 chance that a low-orbit satellite could collide with some of this junk, which (considering how big space is) is ridiculously high. But how do you clean-up stuff in space? Swiss Space Systems thinks it has a solution, and is developing a clean-up satellite, named Clean Space One, to be launched in 2018.

The plan is to launch Clean Space One from a converted Airbus A300 jet. Only weighing in at about 66 pounds, Clean Space One will be sent up to grab the out-of-commission SwissCube nanosatellite. Once Clean Space one links up with the nanosatellite, it will pull out of orbit, taking the trash with it, and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, where it'll burn up during re-entry.

Not only is this system efficient, but it’s also relatively cheap, as far as sending things into space goes. Estimates for production and launch are only about $10 million. Of course, nothing is that easy. Because of politics, the Swiss satellite will only be allowed to clean up space junk legally owned by Switzerland. There are international concerns that this technology could be used as a weapon to de-orbit enemy countries’ satellites. So in the future, it seems that each country would be responsible for cleaning up its own mess out there.


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