Pac-Man Inspires Engineering Solution to Clean up Space Debris
Kagan Pittman posted on July 07, 2015 |

Sweden’s EPFL Center for Space Engineering is launching a new round of satellites, but these ones won’t be doing any analyzing or data transferring. The CleanSpace One mission will see the launch of what the Swiss Space Center is calling its “Pac-Man” solution, cleaning up the earth’s atmosphere one piece of debris at a time.

CleanSpace One satellites will do the pop-culture reference justice by using a conical net to capture space debris. The satellite and its useless cargo will burn up during its descent back to earth.

The first real-world application of the CleanSpace One satellites will be used to take down EPFL’s old SwissCube satellite. Originally launched Sept. 23 2009, the 10cmX10cm cube was only supposed to be in orbit for three months to a year.

The SwissCube satellite. Image courtesy EPFL.

The SwissCube satellite. Image courtesy EPFL.

The SwissCube was launched to photograph “air glow,” a photoluminescence phenomenon that occurs in the upper atmosphere caused by the interaction between solar radiation and oxygen molecules, EPFL explains. Even though the data collected was not precise enough to be studied scientifically, the Swiss Space Center still considers the SwissCube a success. After more than 22,000 trips around the earth with only one of six solar sensors having been irreversibly damaged, it should at least be considered a success in durable engineering.

Having worn out its purpose, however, the SwissCube satellite now proves too dangerous to leave in orbit. Travelling at speeds of up to 15,000mph, debris like the SwissCube could punch a devastating hole through other satellites and threaten the success of present and future missions.

The CleanSpace One satellite will employ a high dynamic-range camera and image processing system that can spot bright reflections coming off the SwissCube as it spins in orbit. “Our camera will pick up, at the same time, very bright and very dark parts of a scene and we don’t want it to be saturated,” says Christophe Paccolat, from EPFL’s Signal Processing Laboratory 5. “Therefore we need very specific sensors that will allow for very large dynamic range. Afterwards, we need to process it and we need to do it in real time in order to feed it to the capture system.”

Once the CleanSpace One meets the challenge of finding its objective, the satellite’s net should be able to catch the SwissCube. In a worst case scenario the smaller satellite could bounce off the CleanSpace One if the net doesn’t deploy on time – if at all.

The Pac-Man solution was accepted among several rejected capture options, which included articulated arms with claws and a tentacle-like scheme. The Swiss Space Center says the net system “is more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand.”

The team behind the CleanSpace One satellite has passed the prototype phase and hopes to soon deliver their first engineering models. The space debris should be dealt with by 2018.

Watch EPFL’s video below for more information and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


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