The US government logged 308,984 potential space-junk collisions in 2017 — and the problem could get much worse.
There are millions of small, hard-to-track bits of orbital debris that can collide with satellites.
Each piece of junk is screaming around our planet at roughly 17,500 mph, or 10 times faster than a bullet. Jack Bacon, a senior scientist at NASA in 2010, states that a hit by a 10-centimeter sphere of aluminum would be akin to detonating 7 kilograms of TNT.
Avoiding such catastrophic collisions is vital to ensuring humans can still access space without have their hardware or spaceships whacked by debris.
With space exploration and commerce on the horizon, it is essential that space junk is eliminated or captured. As such, our team has designed a device aimed to target paint flecks, a significant source of space junk.
In 2017, commercial companies, military and civil departments and amateurs lofted more than 400 satellites into orbit, over 4 times the yearly average for 2000–2010 (Nature). Numbers could rise even more sharply if companies such as Boeing, OneWeb and SpaceX follow through on plans to deploy hundreds to thousands of communications satellites into space in the next few years (Nature).
Space junk is a detriment to space voyages ranging from planned Mars missions in 2025 to routine checks on the ISS. In 2009, a US commercial Iridium satellite smashed into an inactive Russian communications satellite called Cosmos-2251, creating thousands of new pieces of space shrapnel that now threaten other satellites in low Earth orbit — the zone stretching up to 2,000 kilometres in altitude. The number of objects in orbit continues to rise rapidly; today there are roughly 20,000 human-made objects in orbit, from working satellites to small shards of solar panels and rocket pieces.
IDEATING THE SOLUTION
Our team designed a device that cleans space junk through the use of 3 technologies: a graphene net, an electromagnet, and a fiberglass mesh.
The electricity-conducting graphene net is used to capture larger pieces of space junk. The graphene net is made a composite material made of graphene, acrylic, polysiloxane, epoxy, and fine glass fibers. The satellite fires the graphene net at any medium sized piece of space junk, and the net wraps around its target thanks to its electric conductivity. The net is attached to the satellite, and retracts once space junk is captured. From there, it retracts the piece of space junk and stores it inside the satellites body to be stored.
The electromagnet is used to collect pieces of space junk made of iron, nickel, and other magnetic materials. It’s made of hydrogen sulphide because it is a superconductor with a relatively high (203K) critical temperature. The electromagnet controls its current to change the induced magnetic field, allowing for the space junk to be slowed down before it collides with the satellite. It is the first thing tried if space junk is detected; however, if the proximity sensors notice the space junk isn’t moving, other methods are used.
Featured here is a diagram of the device, including the research and function behind each part of the design.
One glaring obstacle is the feasibility of receiving government support for our device. Unfortunately, the idea of cleaning space junk is not holistically an opportunity for groundbreaking discovery and encouraging safe voyage; rather, it is an extension of geopolitics as word leading countries seek to remain in control of the realms of space. In other words, dealing with space debris is as much a national security issue as it is a technical one. According to Saadia Pekkanen, an International Relations professor at University of Washington, the set of government or commercial solutions to counter orbital debris – whether lasers, nets, magnets, tethers, robotic arms or co-orbiting service satellites—have only fueled the prospects for a stealthy race for dominance in outer space.
Considering the plethora of space junk as simply a threat to human missions is ignorant. As a result, our design team wanted to take it a step further. Our team wanted to impose policy that would emphasize deterrence and diplomacy, as well as public awareness, as opposed to creating a perception of threatening technologies.
WHAT I DID
SKETCHED DEVICE, RESEARCHED CAPTURING TECHNOLOGIES, OBSERVED FLAWS IN SPACE JUNK CAPTURE TECHNOLOGY, RESEARCHED GEOPOLITICS SURROUNDING SPACE JUNK, CRAFTED INTERNATIONAL BILL TO ENFORCE RESPONSIBLE CAPTURE OF ABANDONED SPACE TECHNOLOGY