Britain’s first space garbage truck will be able to pick up litter with a ‘bear hug’ or become the robotic equivalent of a garbage collector. The two methods are being offered by companies competing for a UK contract to launch a cleanup mission as early as 2026. The winning prototype would track and capture the two failed satellites and then eject them into the atmosphere, where they would burn up.
Rory Holmes of ClearSpace, one of the competing companies, told Sky News: “For the last six decades we’ve been launching satellites into space without really thinking about what happens at the end of their life. When they run out of fuel or break, we just throw them away. We leave them, and they in turn fill cosmic orbital space. We’re in a situation right now where this space is pretty congested, and all these different ‘dead’ objects are running around, crossing each other’s paths , sometimes collide and sometimes really interfere with what we want to do in space.”
ClearSpace is developing a spaceship that looks a bit like a giant octopus, with lots of tentacles. Holmes calls it a “bear hug.”
“We need to find a way to capture and fix these objects so they don’t rotate and can’t change their position in space,” he said. “One of the advantages of the mechanism we have is that we can wrap the object completely before we fix it properly to make sure it can’t escape and can’t fly off in a direction we don’t expect.”
Another Oxfordshire-based company, Astroscale, will use a spacecraft with a long robotic arm to grab debris.
Jason Forshaw, head of the company’s division, said it was a huge challenge to develop a spacecraft that could evaluate and capture a failed satellite.
– The first task is to inspect the wreck when you get there to see what condition it is in. The second step is to actually approach the satellite and fix it. This requires sophisticated robotics,” says Forshaw.
The spacecraft will need to operate autonomously. Ground control radio signals would arrive too late with such a fast-moving satellite.
Astroscale hopes that satellite manufacturers will begin adding a standardized docking plate to their designs to make it easier to secure another spacecraft, either to refuel and service it or to remove it.
There are more than 130 million pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, from tiny blobs of paint to old satellites, spent rocket bodies and even tools dropped by astronauts, according to the UK Space Agency.
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