Hunting Down Garbage that May Hinder Space Colonization
Although there were many inaccuracies in the movie Gravity, the idea of some kind of disaster occurring as a result of space debris is not that far off the mark. NASA claims that there are more than 500,000 objects orbiting Earth, with one researcher going so far as to say that they've "lost control of the environment." Many scientists believe that the sheer amount of space junk will hinder any future efforts to colonize space, or even safely get out of Earth's orbit. But researchers at MIT are attempting to mitigate this problem, as they have devised an algorithm that will help human or robot garbage collectors hunt down specific pieces of space debris.
The algorithm, which has been tested at the International Space Station, only uses visual data in order to track debis. Using trial-and-error methods that build a visualization of the space around the user, the algorithm allows debris collectors to track the movements and spin of objects in space. The researchers predict that once the algorithm is perfected, it will be able to track the movements of an object as large as a comet.
Predicting the movements of objects as well as their spin will not only render the removal process safer, but also less expensive, as it will allow for more efficient and targeted removal. "There are thousands of pieces of broken satellites in space. If you were to send a supermassive spacecraft up there, yes, you could collect all of those, but it would cost lots of money," said Alvar Saenz-Otero, director of MIT's Space Systems laboratory. "But if you send a small spacecraft, and you try to dock to a small, tumbling thing, you also are going to start tumbling. So you need to observe that thing that you know nothing about so you can grab it and control it."
The space debris problem may not only lead to increased danger surrounding future space missions, but also to the realization of the predicted Kessler syndrome. Kessler syndrome, also called collisional cascading, is the projected effect in which debris collisions create more debris, which leads to a cascade of further collisions, until the number of collisions and amount of space debris increases exponentially. Some project that collisional cascading could make both space exploration and the use of satellites impossible for many generations.