News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.

Sources: gizmag.com, nasa.gov

News From Space: “Rosetta Stone” Meteorite Lands in Ontario

meteorite_st.thomasA search is underway in the small community St. Thomas, Ontario for a rare meteorite that may prove to be a major scientific find. That’s what the Canadian and NASA researchers believe, and they are urging local residents to comb their fields and neighborhoods for one or more of the rock’s fragments. It all began on Tuesday, March 18th at 10:45 p.m., when a fireball streaked across the sky some 75 kilometres above Port Dover, Ont.

The fireball then headed in a westerly direction before vanishing at an altitude of 32 kilometres between Aylmer and St. Thomas. It was widely seen in Toronto, Hamilton, London and other parts of southern Ontario, where skies were clear. Peter Brown, the director of Western University’s Center for Planetary Science and Exploration, estimated the space rock was originally the size of a basketball, which then broke up upon entry.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????His colleague, Western University meteorite curator Phil McCausland, said one or more fragments “about the size of a golf ball or baseball” likely landed about five kilometers north or northwest of St. Thomas. The meteorite from this event is particularly rare and valuable because the fireball was captured by seven all-sky cameras of Western University’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network, allowing researchers to calculate its orbit.

Not only were they able to obtain solid data on the space rock’s orbit, but that orbit itself was special. Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the object spent most of time circling closer to the sun than the Earth, having left its original orbit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter long ago. Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s meteoroid environment office, said only one other meteorite known to have come from that kind of orbit has ever been recorded.

asteroids1As Cooke said during a recent press conference:

This is not your run-of-the-mill meteor fall. This is a very unusual orbit. We’re really interested in knowing what type of object was in this … We won’t know that until we find a piece of it.

According to Brown, this makes each of the meteorite’s fragments something of a “Rosetta Stone”, referring to the famous Egyptian artifact that was the key to translating ancient hieroglyphics. The comparison is not an exaggeration, as the meteor is likely to tell scientists quite a bit about the history of the early Solar System. As he described it:

This is like a poor man’s space probe. It comes to us. It’s going to tell us … what made the Earth, what made the other planets.

st.thomas_meteor1Hence why Brown is asking for the public to help look for the meteorite, which has been described as a rock that looks like it was painted black, and contact the researchers if they find it. The researchers are also interested in hearing accounts from anyone who may have heard a whistling sound “like artillery coming in” or a thud after witnessing the fireball, indicating that it may have landed within a few hundred metres. That may help narrow down the area for the search.

Brown noted that it’s the first time in five years that such a meteor fall has taken place in southern Ontario. The last time researchers issued a callout like this, the meteorite was recovered days later by a member of the public near Grimsby, Ont., where it had crashed through the windshield of an SUV. The fact that this meteorite did not cause injuries or property damage, unlike the one that exploded in the sky over Russia, is also a plus!

Source: cbc.ca

News From Space: China’s Launches Shenzou 10 Manned Spaceship

shenzou_10Yesterday, at approximately 5:38 am ET, China took yet another step towards establishing itself as a major player in space. It’s latest manned spacecraft, known as the Shenzhou 10, departed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at the edge of the Gobi Desert, carrying three astronauts on what is planned to be a fifteen day mission that will see them rendezvousing with the prototype Tiangong-1 space lab in Earth’s orbit.

This is China’s fifth manned mission into space and will be its longest to date. The purpose of the mission is to educate young people about science, but for the Chinese state, it also presents an opportunity to flex its muscles as one of the new leaders in space exploration. Much of this has to do with the Tiangong-1, which is intended to serve as an experimental prototype for a much larger Chinese space station that will be launched in 2020.

shenzhou-10-crewIn this respect, China is hoping to reach beyond its membership as on the three nations to send manned craft into space and join the United States and Russia by being able to send independently maintained space stations into orbit as well. If all goes well, China’s space station will join the likes of Mir and the ISS in Earth’s lower orbit. And with this kind of infrastructure in place, China will be well suited to play a role in future missions to Mars and the outer Solar System.

The craft carried two men, mission commander Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang, and China’s second female astronaut, Wang Yaping. After rendezvousing with the space lab, the crew will spend a total of 12 days living in zero-gravity and conducting scientific experiments, the results of which will be shared with people on Earth.

shenzou_10_dockBorrowing a page from astronaut Chris Hadfield and his many popular Youtube videos that cataloged his crew’s mission aboard the ISS, the Chinese crew plans to deliver a series of talks to students while aboard the Tiangong. This development of “space classrooms” marks the boldest step so far for the Chinese space program, turning what was a military-backed program into something that will impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens.

Here too, China is following in the footsteps of NASA, which uses student outreach to inspire interest in space exploration and sustain support for its budgets. At a news conference on Monday, Wang said she was “eager to explore and feel the magic and splendor of space with young friends.” Her fellow astronaut Zhang told reporters they would conduct dozens of space science experiments and would “enjoy personalized space foods especially designed by our nutritionists.

China_launchcenterOn the day of the launch, President Xi Jinping was shown live on television at the launch center. State television showed Xi watching the launch, as well as Premier Li Keqiang who was at the space command center in Beijing. Prior to the launch, Xi delivered a statement to the astronauts, commending them on their efforts and wishing them luck on their journey:

You have made [the] Chinese people feel proud of ourselves. You have trained and prepared yourselves carefully and thoroughly, so I am confident in your completing the mission successfully. I wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.

The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world’s leading nations. Little wonder then why the launch was met with such fanfare and overseen by both the President and Premier. The mission comes at the height of ten years of Chinese space exploration and if successful, will mark China as a true superpower in the space race of the 21st century.

And be sure to check out the video of the launch of the Shenzou 10:


Source:
cbc.ca, news.xinhuanet.com

The Future of Space Exploration

spacex-icarus-670Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.

So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.

MarsOneSuffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.

Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.

ESA_moonbaseAnd when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.

Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere
Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere

But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.

But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.

And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:

Nuclear Propulsion:
Project-Orion-Spacecraft
The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.

Orion SchematicF0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.

Antimatter Engine:
NASA_antimatterMost science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.

Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.

In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.

antimatter_shipHowever, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.

No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.

Laser Sail:
solar_sail1Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.

This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.

Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.

solar_sailOnce more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!

A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.

So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.

Generation/Cryo-Ship:
ringworld2Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.

The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.

enzmann_starshipBy the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.

Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.

RAMA2Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.

Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.

Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.

Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel:
???????????????????????Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.

However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.

Galactica_newFor one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!

Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.

Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewBut before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”

The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.

But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!

warp_drive

Summary:
In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.

And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?

Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!

Source: ngm.nationalgeographic.comnasa.gov, discoverymagazine.com, eng.wikipedia.org, 100yss.org

Space Junk: The of Bane of the Space Age

janitorOneSpace, or at least the portion which sits in low orbit around our planet, is quite literally a junkyard. Currently, it is estimated that there over 500,000 bits of debris floating above our world, which takes the form of satellite and rocket components, as well as broken down satellites that ceased functioning long ago. Naturally, these objects pose hazards for space flight, and collisions between objects have been known to occur.

In fact, just three years ago, a U.S. and Russian satellite collided over Siberia, generating an estimated 1,000 pieces of new debris at least 4 inches across. In addition, the International Space Station has to periodically adjust its orbit just to get out of the way of traffic. And since exploration and commercial travel to and from the Moon is expected within the near future, something needs to be done to take the garbage out.

cubesatAnd that’s where CleanSpace One comes into play, a janitor satellite that the Swiss Space Center in the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) began developing last year. Specifically designed to target derelict satellites that threaten our communications and information networks. The satellite has a price tag of 11 million dollars, and is expected to be deployed in three to five years.

Naturally, the task before it is a tricky one. In order to do a “launch and seize” operation, the satellite would have to get onto the same orbital plane as its target, latch onto it at high speed, and then de-orbit it. To do this, EPFL is working on an “ultra-compact motor” to get the janitor onto the right track, as well as a grasping mechanism to grab hold of the space junk once its aligned and within distance of it.


And then there’s the efficiency factor. As it stands, a vessel like the CleanSpace One is a one-shot deal design. Once it’s latched onto space junk, it essentially re-enters the atmosphere with it and drops it below, meaning it is unable to gather up multiple pieces of debris and dispose of them discreetly. As such, it would take even a large fleet of janitor satellites quite a long time before they made a dent in all the space junk.

Luckily, there’s another option that has been on the table even longer than the janitor satellite. The reasoning behind this concept is, if you don’t the means to de-orbit all that space junk, just hit it with some photons! When you consider all the debris in orbit and the havoc it plays with the space lanes, not to mention how its only getting worse, a “targeted” approach may just be what the doctor ordered.

space_laserBack in 2011, James Mason, a NASA contractor at the Universities Space Research Association in Moffett Field, Calif., and his colleagues presented a paper claiming that an anti-collision laser system which would target space debris was feasible. Although they acknowledged that more study was required before it could be implemented, they also claimed that lab simulations suggested that the idea would work in practice.

The idea would center around the deployment of a medium-powered laser of 5 to 10 kilowatts to essentially nudge debris off a potential collision course. Rather than eradicate the junk that clutters up the space lanes, this system would be responsible for anticipated crashes and preventing them by ensuring space junk didn’t cross paths with the ISS, satellites, or orbiting shuttles.

space_debrisAnd even that doesn’t represent the entirety of proposed solutions. In addition to janitor satellites and laser, the Russian Space Agency has also been batting around an idea for an orbital pod that would sweep away satellite debris. Details remain sketchy and little information has been released to the public, but the RSA has claimed that they hope to have such a craft ready to go no later than 2023.

Yes, it seems we as a species are entering into phase two of the Space Age. And in this segment of things, orbital pods, offworld habitations, and exploration into the outer Solar System may very well be the shape of things to come. As such, we’re going to need clearer skies above our heads if anything hopes to make it off of Earth without a series fender bender!

space_debris_wide

Sources: news.cnet, cbsnews.com