Neither the space industry nor government institutions have yet narrowed down a particular approach to space waste. For example, Rogue Space Systems is developing a wasp-like spacecraft called the Fred Orbot, with solar panels resembling wings. It is designed to pick up medium-sized pieces of space junk and keep them away from incoming satellites. With his four robotic pursuits, he will float toward the wreckage or a satellite, snatch it in his arms, and gently pull it into a different orbit. If it were to pick up a piece of space junk, it would push it down into a low orbit, where it would eventually fall and burn up in the atmosphere. Alternatively, Fred can be equipped with small thrusters or ropes that can attach to the defunct spacecraft to propel the object down, allowing Fred to flutter quickly toward his next orbital mission.
Other companies have focused on technologies for disposing of large pieces of trash, including bus-size missile bodies, which, in the event of a collision, would create a lot of debris. This debris can weigh in tons, won’t be easy to grab or move to a new orbit, and may be too bulky to burn. “These things don’t just sit there; they stumble. You have a very difficult choreography for concourse,” says Darren McKnight, senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, a company based in Menlo Park, California that monitors space waste with radar systems. He and his colleagues are experimenting with a third approach, often called “just-in-time collision avoidance.” That might involve attaching thrusters and a GPS receiver to a dead satellite, turning it into some kind of zombie vehicle, which can move on its own — at least enough to avoid a collision. Or something as simple as jetting powder in front of a dead spacecraft could provide enough air resistance to slow it down or push it slightly into a different path.
Regardless of the approach, with so many technologies in development, McKnight says, he’d like to see them used sooner rather than later. “We need to put these systems that are known to work into orbit. The time to fix is over.”
This sentiment is reflected in a series of new international initiatives, such as net zero space, which was announced on November 12 at the Paris Peace Forum, an international non-profit group that organized the effort. The Net Zero Space declaration is read as a United Nations agreement, with a commitment to two main goals: to not create more space debris, and to begin removing existing debris by 2030. “Concrete collective steps must be taken to prevent the rapid deterioration of space debris in the Earth’s orbital environment.”
Despite widespread recognition of the space waste problem among space agencies and industry, “there is very little international cooperation,” says Jerome Barbier, head of space, digital and economic issues at the Paris Peace Forum. However, he continues, “Space debris has no nationalities. They threaten all of our assets and all services related to them, and we need to take action before it’s too late.”