A Giant Pac-Man Is About to Start Gobbling Up Space Debris

Wednesday, 15 July 2015 - 2:34PM
Weird Science
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 - 2:34PM
Space junk is steadily accumulating in Earth's orbit, at an alarming rate. Several theories have been proposed, and they seem to be increasing in ridiculousness, with ESA proposing a method that involves shooting giant fishing nets out of cannons earlier this year. But now, the Swiss EPFL's Center for Space Engineering has proposed the craziest idea of all: a giant "Pac-Man" satellite that will gobble up space debris.

The defunct satellite Swiss Cube has been in space for more than five years, and the center is intent on making sure it doesn't contribute to the growing reservoir of space debris. It's difficult for any retrieval system to grasp, as it has darker and lighter parts that reflect sunlight differently, so the EPFL consulted with microengineering students in order to come up with the most efficient solution, a Pac-Man-esque satellite called CleanSpace One.

According to an EPFL press release:

Opening quote
The students came up with various solutions, from articulated arms with claws to a system of tentacles. They finally opted for the so-called "Pac-Man" solution. The prototype resembles a net in the form of a cone that unfolds and then closes back down once it has captured the small satellite.
Closing quote

"This system is more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand," said Michel Lauria, a professor of industrial technology at the Swiss lab Hepia.

It's actually a similar concept to the ESA's fishing nets, but since the CleanSpace One will deploy its net while it's still attached to the satellite, rather than propelling it away like the ESA's fishing nets, it looks much more like it's "eating" the space debris, Pac-Man-style. After it "gobbles" the space junk, it will safely de-orbit and burn up in the Earth's upper atmosphere.

Since this satellite is only meant to neutralize one defunct satellite, and the system is not re-usable, it's not necessarily a long-term solution for the proliferation of space debris. But any improvements in debris removal technology can only be a step in the right direction, and will hopefully be a stepping stone on the way to a long-term solution.

Via IEEE Spectrum.
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