Let's Destroy Space Junk! By Putting Tons of Metal Dust into Orbit?

By Sophie Bushwick | June 28, 2012 1:01 pm

An illustration of the Naval Research Laboratory’s plan
to knock space junk out of orbit

Here on earth, green enthusiasts tend to judge people for littering, but for 50 years, we’ve had little opposition to cluttering up space. Today, there are hundreds of millions of objects in low-earth orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to trashed lens caps and frozen urine. More than just an aesthetic problem, space junk can crash into satellites and endanger ships passing through on their way to deeper space. Several plans have been proposed to clean up the mess, some requiring advanced materials like aerogels, but the latest suggestion is a bit more cost effective: It just requires a bit of dust.

The Naval Research Laboratory wants to deliver clouds of dust particles via rocket to specific altitudes, where they would travel the same path as targeted pieces of space junk, but move in the opposite direction. When the target reached the cloud, the moving dust would coat it, increase its drag, slow it down, and lower its orbit, pulling it towards a fiery destruction in earth’s atmosphere.

It’s an interesting idea but raises one obvious concern: If the delivery went poorly and left the dust in the wrong place, or moving in the wrong direction, the attempted solution would merely add more debris to the trash already in orbit. Nonetheless, the researchers point out that small meteorites and human activity already release widely dispersed dust into low-earth orbit every day. Although the scientists would be adding concentrated dust clouds, the total volume from the cleanup effort would still be much less than that already left behind, they say.

[via Talking Points Memo Idea Lab]

Image courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • http:/maritimefuturecenter.blogspot.com steve smyth

    Maybe they can get together with the Space Fence people…dust and fences…it’ll be like the Wild West out there.

    Truly amazing…launch more debris to prevent the debris already there…DUH!

    Try this… http://maritimefuturecenter.blogspot.com

    Learn about TelecomsatG2…Earth’s first self-launching, recyclable, zero debris satellite.

    Relax…I have this one covered.

    Steve Smyth

  • Tony Mach

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Yeah, right. How about trying it out on another planet first? Preferably one were we can do without space travel in low orbit for some time? Litter Venus with space junk, release the anti-junk metal dust and see how it goes. Have some space-probes there in low orbit to see if they are affected.

  • scribbler

    Why not use water? I mean, put the water into a shape and size you want, freeze it and put it into an orbit where it picks up debris and at a certain mass, falls harmlessly back to earth…

  • IW

    Finally, a use for rust!

  • fintin

    Couldn’t we use some sort of sweeper system? It guess it sounds ridiculous, but it’d have more control than a bunch of dust.

  • Maggie

    The country that owns the pieces of space junk should be required to remove it.

  • JC

    I’ve had an idea about a cleanup mini-sat that’d just have to get close to debris, then fire a squirt of some kind of gas (heading in the opposite direction, natch) such that the debris would hit the gas and lose enough velocity that it’d wind up falling out of orbit (or at least start spiraling downward). The gas would disperse, so it wouldn’t be a long-term threat at all.

    It’s probable, however, that the gas would disperse too quickly, or wouldn’t slow the debris enough to make it worthwhile, or it’d be too hard for the cleanup sat to get close enough with enough accuracy. Ahwell.

  • Jeffrey Cornish

    if the dust is not doing orbital velocity (7.mumble kps) it will deorbit, so overall it would be safe. for any of the dust to remain in orbit, it would have to be accellerated to orbital velocity, right?

    So what you are doing here is launching your intercept booster in a direction opposite the direction of the target object. When the dust hits the object it´s like two cars colliding head on, you don´t (generally) get one car speeding off faster than it was originally going. Both slow down

    The dust that misses, is not doing near orbital velocity, so like the nice diagram shows, it falls back. (Remember an orbit is where you are constantly falling towards the Earth´s surface, but your sideways velocity is fast enough that you MISS due to the Earth´s curvature)

    Making sure that the junk you want to take down is in the right spot for the intercept, that´s more tricky.

    I like the Blasting, er ablating with lasers concept myself, and I think the electro motivc tether deorbit system is also worthwhile (Because, dude, electromotive tethers!! Drag the target down, or drag it up! all by cutting the Earth´s magnetic field with a conductor!)

    In the short term for nuisance objects in LEO the suborbital shotgun here might well be worth it.

  • David Evans

    Even if the dust has orbital velocity, radiation pressure will push its orbit into the atmosphere in a short time (if the particles are small enough).

  • pete

    I recall someone suggesting that the dust be made from a plastic, so that it will degrade in the intense sunlight

  • Prof.Pedant

    Since it is vacuum that needs to be cleaned up….wouldn’t it make sense to use a ‘vacuum cleaner’?

  • Pat Thompson

    The chief cause of problems is solutions. ~Eric Sevareid


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