Space junk is getting to be more and more of a problem, but while there have been plenty of serious talks on the subject, the first country to actually go and do something about it may be the Swiss. By 2016, Switzerland plans to launch a "janitor satellite" to start fighting the the space junk problem directly while the rest of us keep twiddling our thumbs.
Switzerland is generally best known for their obnoxious clocks, comically over-sized cowbells, and killer hot chocolate, but on occasion they do come up with other good ideas, and this is one of them: CleanSpace One, a little space-borne janitor designed to grapple onto obsolete satellites and other space junk and forcibly de-orbit them.
CleanSpace One is, as far as we know, the first purpose-built spacecraft designed from the ground up to tackle the space junk problem directly. Costing just under $11 million, it's simple, cheap, and hopefully, it'll be effective. At only about a foot on a side and two feet long, CleanSpace One isn't what you'd call intimidating, but it doesn't need to be. After launch, the satellite will rendezvous with its target using a new kind of ultra-compact space engine, and once it gets within range, it'll shoot out some sort of crazy plant-inspired grappling tendrils to grab onto the junk. Once it's got hold, CleanSpace One will fire up its engine and drag the junk down into the atmosphere with it, burning them both to dust.
CleanSpace One's first target will be one of a couple very small Swiss research satellites, so you don't (yet) have to worry about Switzerland taking down your satellite TV or the ISS with one of these little space janitors. The Swiss do have big plans for this system, though:
"We want to offer and sell a whole family of ready-made systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites," explains Swiss Space Center Director Volker Gass. "Space agencies are increasingly finding it necessary to take into consideration and prepare for the elimination of the stuff they're sending into space. We want to be the pioneers in this area."
Satellite-sized pieces of junk are only a small part of the overall problem, of course, and different techniques are going to be necessary to take care of all of the little tiny bits that are still just as deadly to the stuff in orbit that we care about. But, keeping the big stuff tidied up will help it from running into other big stuff, creating a nasty explosion and thousands more pieces of small stuff. It's already happened once, and if it happens a few more times, the sheer amount of junk flying around up there could potentially render orbit unsafe for humans and satellites alike.
Watch the video below for more info, including a cool animation of how the junk capture is going to work.