How the Swiss space-vacuum-cleaner does its job
Subsequent to my previous post about cleaning up space junk, I've fielded questions about how something the size of a cuckoo clock can tackle such a massive job.
It seems that a whole fleet of SpaceCleaners is envisaged. The SpaceClean gadget grabs the offending bit of space litter, "de-orbits" it so that it stops spinning and orbiting, and then dives back into the atmosphere and burns up with its captive.
It sounds incredibly wasteful, but at least we can thank the project for its excellent intentions, and for giving the world a new term: DE-ORBIT.
Here is part of the official story from News MediaCom:
One satellite, three technological hurdles
The cleanup satellite has three major challenges to overcome, each of which will necessitate the development of new technology that could, in turn, be used down the road in other applications.
After its launch, the cleanup satellite will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target’s orbital plane. To do this, it could use a new kind of ultra-compact motor designed for space applications that is being developed in EPFL laboratories. When it gets within range of its target, which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it – a mission that’s extremely dicey at these high speeds, particularly if the satellite is rotating. To accomplish the task, scientists are planning to develop a gripping mechanism inspired from a plant or animal example. Finally, once it’s coupled with the satellite, CleanSpace One will “de-orbit” the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.
Although its first model is destined to be destroyed, the CleanSpace One adventure will not be a one-shot deal. “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.”
The design and construction of CleanSpace One, as well as its maiden space voyage, will cost about 10 million Swiss francs. Depending on the funding and industrial partners, this first orbital rendez-vous could take place within three to five years.