Earth is like the Pig-Pen of the solar system: more than 100,000 objects bigger than a centimeter wide hover around our planet, accounting for 4 million pounds of junk that befoul our atmosphere and threaten the expensive satellites we actually want in orbit. What if we could just burn up the junk like a meteor hitting the atmosphere? Scientist Dr. Kristen Gates says we can — by sending gigantic space balloons into the atmosphere.
Artistic rendering courtesy European Space Operations Centre
Gates, of Global Aerospace Corporation, proposes attaching a football field-sized balloon to a dead satellite, which would increase the orbital drag on it, eventually bringing it down into the atmosphere where it would burn up. GOLD — or Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device — consists of an ultra-thin but ultra-strong material that can fit in a medium suitcase when uninflated. It’s easily inflated in space, and best of all, if the deployed GOLD balloon collides with space junk, it won’t deflate or break the junk into smaller, less manageable bits: unlike other proposed solutions to our Pig-Pen dilemma, it won’t make the problem worse.
GOLD can be attached to existing large debris using an orbital robot, but the best tactic is to include it at launch to be deployed at the end of a mission. Current missions pack a little extra fuel to bring the craft down, but the GOLD system actually weighs and costs less.