The amount of debris orbiting the Earth is alarming. It’s a threat to both space science, and business — space business. The European Space Agency just wrapped up its 6th European Conference on Space Debris to decide what to do about it. One of the ideas? Let’s shoot harpoons and nets at the junk. How soon before Space Junkers is a show on the Discovery Channel?
Heiner Klinkrad, the head of ESA’s Space Debris Office said, “There is a wide and strong expert consensus on the pressing need to act now to begin debris removal activities.” He compared the agency’s understanding of the problem of space debris to the world’s understanding of the need to deal with climate change 20 years ago. That’s good news, because there definitely aren’t a bunch of people who deny that particular problem exists.
The plan to go up and catch space garbage in a big net was just one of the proposals given, but Klinkrad said the only way to solve the problem is to physically remove the debris from orbit. He says we need to be removing five to ten large objects from orbit each year to gain control of the environment. I guess you could do that with a big net.
Are nets not your thing? One of the other proposals is to vaporize the debris with giant lasers. The experts haven’t agreed on the solution to the problem, just that there is one. The other thing they seem to agree on is that, going forward, we need to be more careful about what we’re leaving behind with our space missions. It’s getting pretty crowded up there.
The bad news is that the technical challenges to removing debris from space are likely to be nothing compared to the geopolitical ones that will arise. Some countries may not want other countries salvaging their space debris, while others might feel that countries should be responsible for their own space junk.
At the concluding press conference, Klinkrad chaired a panel of experts from the space agencies of Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K. where they presented their findings. You can watch a replay of that press conference right here:
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