Super Thin Spacecraft is Designed to Capture Space Debris

Sunday, 10 September 2017 - 6:24PM
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Sunday, 10 September 2017 - 6:24PM
Super Thin Spacecraft is Designed to Capture Space Debris
Aerospace Corporation
Earth's orbit continues to fill up with space debris, and while we haven't seen any real life recreations of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity just yet, the rising amount of trash flying over our heads certainly won't help.

It's at the point where NASA is open to ideas about how to help reduce all our space junk, through their conceptual Innovative Advanced Concepts program (shortened to NIAC), which gives out funding to odd-but-plausible ideas which could make it into space someday. And they've just recently provided a second round of funding to an idea from The Aerospace Corporation called the "Brane Craft." 

The Brane Craft is an active membrane spacecraft, although as you can see above, it looks more like a giant square of wrapping paper. That's the idea - it's a super flat craft designed to catch and wrap around space debris floating through our orbit, before pulling back into our atmosphere to be disposed of properly.

It's thinner than a strand of hair, to the point where it's called "essentially two-dimensional" on its NASA info page, which may be hyperbole, but it gets the message across. NIAC executive Jason Derleth uses a different comparison, but the idea is that it's flat and flexible:

Opening quote
"You can essentially think of it as one giant piece of saran wrap covered with thrusters, and you can curl it however you want."
Closing quote


If it actually works out, it's designed to be efficient. Aerospace Corporation scientist Siegfried Janson told Popular Science that by reducing a spacecraft to its absolute minimum mass and compressing all the solar cells, electronics and liquid propellant into one square meter that's only 35 grams, the Brane Crafts can be made cheaply (for only $5000 each, which is at least cheap for NASA). 

As bizarre as it is, this isn't the first time someone's thought to catch space junk by shooting what's basically a giant net into space. A couple years ago, ESA began toying with a similar idea, a device that can shoot nets through zero gravity environments to catch debris that way:



The Brane Craft is different, by turning the net itself into the device. It might be several years before an actual "smart net" like the Brane Craft gets launched into space, but for the time being, NASA is onboard with the idea.
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