NASA Aiming To Clean Up Space Junk With New Project Initiatives

There are currently multiple satellites and pieces of man-made debris floating in orbit around Earth, making it difficult to get a clear picture of our galaxy without distraction. NASA recently released a new report on “orbital debris remediation” with plans to improve the current space junk situation. 

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Dr. Moriba Jah, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department, was recently interviewed by Salon Magazine regarding NASA’s recent “orbital debris remediation” plans to help clear Earth’s atmosphere of space junk; man-made debris and satellites currently floating in Earth’s orbit. 

“We have to learn how to live in our own filthy bathwater at this point. It’s like plastics in the ocean, just like we’ll never have pristine oceans, we’ll never have pristine land. It’s done,” Jah stated. 

While this outlook may seem discouraging, NASA is still planning on launching new initiatives to improve the current space junk problem as outlined in their recent remediation reports.

“Space debris like discarded equipment, non-functioning satellites, machine fragments and even paint chips can hinder the use of space upon which critical infrastructure of the U.S. economy relies, such as communications, national security, financial exchanges, transportation and climate monitoring.” 

NASA’s report outlined how they have a cost-beneficial plan to clean up the debris by using methods such as lasers that are ground and space based, which could potentially zap away parts of debris that are 1 to 10 centimeters across. 

“Cleaning up space debris is not optional,” explained associate professor Dr. Carolin Frueh of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“A multitude of approaches will be necessary to make the best of a bad situation. It will be a combination of ground-based, space-based including lasers and active removal. First and foremost there has to be the mitigation of debris in the first place and strict end-of-life mechanisms,” Dr. Frueh explained. 

Dr. John L. Crassidis, a professor at the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, told Salon “for small objects, lasers are the most reasonable approach. These small objects can still cause significant damage because they travel at speeds of over 17,000 miles per hour, so removing these is a good start because the benefit is the fastest of all the ones considered. Ground-based lasers are more feasible at this time.”

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“There is no ‘Lord of the Rings’ one technology to rule them all. It takes a hybrid approach. It’s going to take a little bit of everything.”

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Despite these almost universal views regarding space junk, other space agencies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX are still planning to further crowd Earth’s orbit with new satellites. 

“The report does mention ‘megaconstellations,’ such as the one SpaceX is currently sending up. We don’t know the immediate problem, but as the report states, the number of debris grows even if no new satellites are launched.’ Adding thousands of satellites will certainly cause issues. Also, these constellations are causing ‘light pollution’ for astronomers,” Crassidis explained.

Jah, told Salon he has been “working with SpaceX directly, the company has been trying to design less reflective satellites to minimize their impact on astronomy.

This could ultimately be a big deal, given that SpaceX owns roughly half of the more than 5,000 operational satellites in orbit right now. The fact [is] that these things do pollute the night sky, man, in terms of observations for astronomy and that sort of stuff, and even in rural areas [where there are] indigenous people whose cultural heritage is to look at the sky.”