Robot Satellite to become the Roomba for Low-Earth Orbit

Problem: Space debris cluttering low-Earth.  Solution: Robot Satellites and Flaming Re-entry.

According to NASA, there are 19,000 pieces of sizable space debris rushing around the Earth. Although the pieces of debris are relatively small, their velocity coupled with the delicate materials used in space architecture can make a debilitating combination.

To solve this problem, engineers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Swiss Space Systems (S3) have created a satellite that can orbit the planet collecting space debris. What’s more, the group says they do this extra-planetary clean-up on the cheap.

Called the CleanSpace One, the satellite would start its journey to orbit aboard a Sub-Orbital Reusable shuttle (SOAR) attached to the belly of an A300 jet. Once the jet reaches an altitude of 10km (33,000ft) the SOAR would decouple from the plane and fly to an altitude of 80km (263,000ft) where it would use a rocket to boost itself to its final altitude of 700km (435 miles) above Earth.

Once in this position, Clean Space One’s debris-collecting satellite could be deployed as soon as it rendezvoused with its target space-junk. After being released the satellite would maneuver itself into close proximity with its target and snatch the debris with its robotic claw.

To eliminate its payload, the satellite would then orient itself for a kamikaze reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere during which everything would be burnt to a crisp.   

According to EPFL engineers, their CleanSpace One plan could reduce satellite launch costs by a factor of four, making space debris collection economical. According to Pascal Haussi, CEO of Swiss Space Systems, “You can’t democratize space access without having a responsible attitude. If we don’t deal with the problem of orbiting space debris and its accumulation, future generations’ access to space will be compromised.”

Images and Video Courtesy of EPFL