Got an idea to clean up junk in space? Defence department wants to hear it

Debris left over from launches and defunct satellites poses a serious risk to astronauts and equipment in orbit, and now the federal government is looking for viable ways to clean it up.

An estimated 34,000 objects with diameters of more than 10 cm are currently in orbit

The U.S. government tracks tens of thousands of pieces of space junk, including derelict satellites and large pieces of orbital debris. But smaller pieces can be lethal to astronauts and inflict major damage to satellites, too. (NASA)

The Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces are asking scientists and engineers for help to develop a viable and cost-effective way to clean up space debris.

While natural celestial bodies like asteroids and comets are considered debris, there is also a host of earthly objects polluting the cosmos — including inactive satellites and fragments leftover from their disintegration, such as screws and paint chips.

Researchers estimate that as of January 2019, there were some 34,000 pieces of debris floating in space with a diameter of more than 10 cm.

Jesse Rogerson, an astrophysicist and a science advisor at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that since debris is orbiting at speeds of at least 28,000 to 30,000 km/h, a collision between a small object like a screw and the International Space Station could cause "serious damage."

While space garbage is harmless to humans on Earth, it can pose serious risks to astronauts in orbit.

Nothing effective currently in use

In its request for proposals, DND said there are currently no ongoing operations to mitigate the risks of space debris, and existing prototypes of tools engineered for the task have proven ineffective.

Last year, researchers tested a satellite that gets close to a piece of debris, launches a harpoon and pulls the debris into itself to de-orbit the object, Rogerson said.

"On prototype, that sounds great — you're grabbing a piece, you're bringing it down," he said.

"But, it doesn't have a large scale-up possibility with it. So if you want to take down, say, hundred of thousands of things or millions of things, you need to do better than that."

Jesse Rogerson, an astrophysicist and a science advisor at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, said he expects the DND to receive many ideas and designs to remove space junk. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Now, DND is looking for innovative concepts and designs that will allow the department to track small debris and remove multiple objects of all different sizes.

People have until Sept. 9 to submit them.

While DND searches for ways to reduce debris already in space, scientists are simultaneously developing methods to limit the number of manmade objects put into orbit when rockets and satellites are launched in the future.

"Every launch we do, we want to think about the space that we're using," Rogerson said. 

"You want less stuff to fall off and you want to have a plan to de-orbit once it's not in use anymore."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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