Humans aren’t great at picking up their trash, a fact that is reinforced by the Great Pacific garbage patch and other massive dumps and landfills around the world. As it turns out, we are also taking our talent at producing rubbish into orbit with us. Since the advent of spaceflight in the 1950s, outer space has become congested with about 500,000 bits of spacecraft debris measuring larger than a marble, and 20,000 chunks larger than a softball, according to NASA.
Even small defunct objects an do a lot of damage to operational spacecraft, and when two large spacecraft collide—which happened in 2009 when the Iridium 33 and Cosmos-2251 satellites slammed into each other—it can produce a cascade of additional dangerous waste.
To combat the growing problem of space debris, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is developing a satellite platform that could capture damaged and obsolete spacecraft, either for repair or removal from orbit. In a recently released video, DLR shows how this On-Orbit Servicing satellite would carefully approach and grasp errant space objects.
These tests were carried out across two laboratories—the European Proximity Operations Simulator (EPOS) 2.0 and the On-Orbit Servicing Simulator (OOS-Sim)—and included demonstrations of the ground-based control center, the necessary communications software, and a prototype of the interfacing spacecraft.
When the prototype is in range to grasp the target, the DRL team reaches out with a robotic arm, which can be deployed autonomously, or can be guided by a human on the ground using a teleoperated laboratory version of the arm.
DLR is not the only aerospace organization interested in deploying service satellites for repairing and removing damaged or defunct spacecraft. Similar projects include orbital nets to trap wayward satellites, a concept called ‘Sling-Sat’ that derives its name from a proposed method of catapulting itself between targets, and naturally, a station that laser-blasts debris to death.
It will take more time and research to adequately test these off-Earth garbage collectors, but there’s little question that they will be necessary to keep the pathways to space clear and safe for future spacecraft and astronauts.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.