Monday, February 16, 2009

How do you vacuum a vacuum?

The recent US-Russian satellite collision (which occurred weirdly close to a scary incident in which British and French nuclear subs managed to get into the same tiny patch of ocean) reminded everyone of the space debris problem. NORAD and the USAF are tracking about 19,000 objects of 10cm or larger in orbit now. How do you reduce the hazards, given that natural reentry can taken, depending on the orbit and other factors, months to centuries for each stray satellite, bolt, holding clamp, and piece of shrapnel?
As this NY Times editorial points out, absent an easy answer to that question, the first thing we need to do is stop making more debris. We need more sensors and more computing power to avoid future collisions and better steps to mitigate the release of junk during normal operations.

Oddly, cost analyst Robyn Kane and I published a 1999 paper through the Conference on Small Satellites about the need for a "Space Guard" of small, maneuverable spacecraft which could, among other things, latch on to a dead satellite and deorbit it. The example we used was exactly what just happened: a defunct Russian satellite on a collision course with an American comsat. Alas, no one came up to us at that 1999 meeting with a check and said "Look into this." Maybe someone will look into it now.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for this item.

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