Space Debris Vacuum Cleaner Answer to Space Debris?

By Wesley Roberts •  Updated: 02/22/09 •  3 min read

With the recent satellite collision fresh on everyone’s minds and the U.S. delaying the Shuttle launch yet again, it might be a good idea to bring in the Space Debris Vacuum Cleaner. This vacuum cleaner, a concept put together by the Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama, would be technology designed to detect, engage, and capture any space debris (man-made or natural) that could damage orbiting satellites or space vehicles.

Currently, NORAD tracks space debris down to the size of a tennis ball. The technology that they envision would be capable of detecting debris down to the size of a small marble. A constellation of space shuttle-like vehicles with a great deal of maneuvering fuel and storage area could be used with high-power radars to detect space particles it wanted to capture.

High-power lasers would then be used to alter the particle’s path, in a sense `sweeping` them into the proper orbit so they could be intercepted by the space shuttle-like vehicles.

Particle Capture

Once on a proper intercept, the space shuttle-like vehicles would use extremely long maneuvering arms and astronauts to capture particles. Small particles would be captured by a large electromagnet at the end of a maneuvering arm. The idea is to `vacuum` across space collecting the debris as it went through space.

All the particles would be stored in the space shuttle’s storage compartment until they could be brought back to earth.

Several of the key satellite orbits around the earth are becoming dangerously full of space debris from previous launches. Today, the space shuttle experiences at least one significant impact from space debris on every mission.

In the future, we can expect this problem to become much worse to the point of losing a satellite or the space shuttle itself in 30 years. In order to ensure safe access to these orbits, the U.S. needs to develop this technology to `vacuum` space clean of debris. This technology will ensure the U.S. military and commercial access to space will be unencumbered.

Development Challenges

Developing a radar capable of detecting small particles at great distances in space would be a technological challenge. Additionally, the technology of the space laser which would alter the orbits of the particles to place them in an intercept with the `vacuum` shuttle vehicle would be challenging.

Finally, the technology to collect debris, either with a maneuvering arm or with a large electromagnet to attract particles would be difficult.

The Space Debris Vacuum Cleaner has not taken off the ground yet, but it would appear that the project may soon get a lot more attention as the need for such a system exists much more today than last month even.