A team of Chinese researchers believes they have developed a solution to the problem of ‘space junk.’ Picture a giant space vacuum cleaner, not entirely unlike the one pictured in the 1987 classic film Spaceballs, that could capture errant space garbage and break it down into fuel. The resulting fuel would then be used to propel the cleaning craft so it could continue to collect more garbage. This is the latest in a series of attempts to clean up the smaller bits of discarded satellites, rocket parts, and other broken things floating around in space.
A spacecraft that turns unwanted junk into fuel is exactly what is being proposed by Lei Lan and her team from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Their proposal for a design concept for a “junk engine” was recently published in the Cornell University Library. The basic idea is simple. At a high enough temperature, any collected space junk can be turned into a plasma of positive ions and electrons. This can be used to propel the spacecraft by accelerating it through an electric field. It’s not incredibly clear how that will work, and although that would account for the vessel’s fuel needs, it wouldn’t supply power. The team says solar and nuclear power will be a suitable electricity source, but they didn’t comment on the potential safety hazards of having a nuclear-powered craft orbiting the Earth.
What is all that junk, anyway? Good question. Space debris originates from a variety of situations: from materials and tools used during maintenance to the shrapnel leftover when two satellites meet in a high-speed collision, which actually happened once in 2009. Space is really big, so it doesn’t seem like a few stray chunks of metal would be much of a problem, but it is. Clouds of space debris can interfere with the orbit patterns of satellites, and analysts say we will reach a point when there are so many fragments of space junk they will break down and essentially multiply, creating more individual pieces of junk than ever.
Over the years, a number of countries have attempted to address the ‘space junk’ problem with varied approaches and mixed results. Japanese aerospace folks wanted to use a giant net, inspired by fishermen, to scoop up the debris. The Swiss space center proposed a ‘janitor’ satellite capable of collecting hundreds of thousands of pieces of trash. And then, of course, is the American approach to the growing problem of space clutter: use giant bursts of air to blow the debris away. Think of it like using a leaf blower to clear your driveway; all that space junk has to end up somewhere, doesn’t it?
It’s a bit ironic for a breakthrough like this to come out of China, too, since that nation has more than secured the title of biggest polluter on planet Earth. Common sense might suggest that cleaning up things here at home would take priority over picking up space litter, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
And here’s that priceless scene from Spaceballs, just for fun: