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Space Junk 'Cleaning' Missions Urgently Needed 165

Following a conference on space debris, the European Space Agency has warned that the amount of space junk floating around in orbit is a problem that needs to be dealt with 'urgently.' They are calling for a number of test missions to examine different methods of controlling or removing the debris. "Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth’s changing climate some 20 years ago," said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the agency's Space Debris office. A couple years ago we discussed an idea for de-orbiting space junk by hitting it with a laser to change its momentum. An Australian company has now received funding from NASA and the Australian government to try just that. "We've been developing tracking systems using lasers for some years, so we can actually track very small objects with a laser rangefinder to very high accuracy. ... If you allow that velocity to change over a period of perhaps 24 hours, then you can get actually a 100-meter shift in the location of an object to deflect it from colliding with another space debris object." Other plans are in development as well, and there currently exists an international guideline saying that new hardware must de-orbit and burn up in the atmosphere after 25 years of operation — but compliance is lagging. Meanwhile, collision events are becoming more common (PDF), and experts worry about the safety of the International Space Station and important satellites. "Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities."

Using Lasers and Water Guns To Clean Space Debris 267

WSJdpatton writes "The collision between two satellites last month has renewed interest in some ideas for cleaning up the cloud of debris circling the earth. Some of the plans being considered: Using aging rockets loaded with water to dislodge the debris from orbit so it will burn up in the atmosphere; junk-zapping lasers; and garbage-collecting rockets."

Satellites Collide In Orbit 456

DrEnter writes "According to this story on Yahoo, two communications satellites collided in orbit, resulting in two large clouds of debris. The new threat from these debris clouds hasn't been fully determined yet. From the article, 'The collision involved an Iridium commercial satellite, which was launched in 1997, and a Russian satellite launched in 1993 and believed to be nonfunctioning. Each satellite weighed well over 1,000 pounds.' This is the fifth spacecraft/satellite collision to occur in space, but the other four were all fairly minor by comparison."

ISS Dodges Space Junk For First Time In Five Years 141

Kligat writes "For the first time since 2003, the International Space Station has utilized the rockets on the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle to dodge leftover remnants of a defunct satellite. The Russian Cosmos-2421 was launched in June 2006 to track Western Navy vessels and is believed by NASA to have exploded — 'likely due to a self-destruct command issued by Russian officials' according to the article — leaving 500 pieces of space debris. Ordinarily, the rockets on the ATV are used to take the ISS away from Earth's atmosphere and reduce drag. In this case, the 5-minute firing caused the ISS to move downward because it was already near the top of its acceptable range. Estimated probability of impact was 1 in 72, and an avoidance maneuver is called for if the probability is greater than 1 in 10,000. The space junk was predicted to pass the ISS within just a mile."

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