It’s easy to think of the space around our planet as an empty vacuum, devoid of much other than a few satellites and the International Space Station. In reality, there are millions of pieces of man-made junk orbiting Earth. The space debris is mostly small — think marble-sized — but even tiny pieces can cause major damage to satellites and spacecraft when they’re hurtling through space at 17,500 miles per hour.
Fortunately, a team of engineers from China has come up with one cool way to clean up the skies. They want to build a self-sustaining spacecraft that collects debris and converts it into fuel that, in turn, powers the craft as it cleans up more debris. How does it work? At a high enough temperature, just about anything can be transformed into plasma that can be used as a propellant. The ship will rocket around Earth, sucking in debris and transforming it into fuel.
Here are a few more ideas for making space cleaner and safer:
- CleanSpace One is a massive satellite with a giant spidery hand. It grabs space junk and hurtles it through Earth’s atmosphere, where the debris will eventually burn up. The spacecraft should be functional by 2018.
- NASA’s solar-powered ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator maneuvers into position next to an object and captures the debris with a lightweight net. EDDE should be ready for a test flight sometime in 2015.
- Laser orbital debris removal is a process that allows giant high-powered lasers on Earth to fire toward space debris, causing the junk to lose velocity and fall safely into Earth’s atmosphere.
- The Sticky Boom is a robotic arm system that extends up to 100 feet and uses an adhesive gripper to clamp onto debris.
- The wall of water method involves launching rockets full of water into space. The rockets release their payload to create a water barrier, causing debris to slow and eventually fall out of orbit.
Did you know?
NASA says space debris mostly consists of paint flakes, bolts, human waste, fuel, lost equipment and meteoroids.