What’s the News: The many bits of space junk orbiting Earth, from foil scraps to lens caps to chunks of frozen urine, can damage satellites and spacecraft, which is why researchers have long sought methods to remove debris from orbit. Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have proposed a new way of taking out the trash (in two senses): They want to pump 20 tons of tungsten dust into Earth’s orbit; this dust would exert drag on the junk’s orbit, slowing it down and gradually lowering it until Earth’s atmosphere can burn it up. This bid to protect Earth’s 900 active satellites is controversial because the dust could potentially harm solar panels on satellites and obstruct astronomical measurements, but it’s a handy fix because it doesn’t require ambitious new technology.
Every time a space shuttle or the International Space Station has a near miss with a piece of space junk, we’re reminded just how much of the stuff litters the area around our planet—millions of total pieces amounting to more than 5,500 tons. The orbital debris includes everything from old rocket stages to shed paint flakes, and the situation worsened last year when two satellites collided, sending forth showers of debris. It’s a problem that grows steadily worse without an apparent solution, but now University of Surrey scientists say they’ve developed a possible solution: a tiny clean-up device with sails.
To help tidy up Earth’s orbit, the device could be attached to any piece of space-going technology. The CubeSail, which would measure more than 16 feet square when unfolded, is packed into a compartment that measures 4 inches wide and deep, and a foot long. When the sail is deployed, metal strips that are wound up inside the container straighten out and pull the sail flat. Despite its small size, the system could deorbit an object of up to 1,100 pounds, Surrey scientists say. CubeSail works by pulling against the small amounts of atmospheric gases present at orbital heights. Although the density of air molecules is low, it’s enough to make the sail act like a parachute, slowing it down, dragging the dead satellite to a fiery reentry much sooner than it would have done otherwise [Discovery News].