The Swiss have a plan to launch CleanSpace One, an $11m "janitor satellite" to clean up debris in Earth's orbit, within the next five years.
The problem of space junk is formidable: NASA estimates 16,000 pieces of debris that are larger than 4 inches in diameter, over 500,000 pieces that are larger than 1/3 inch in diameter and hundreds of millions of tinier pieces. Because debris in orbit travels at speeds of up to 18,000 mph, even a fragment as tiny as a paint chip can severely damage a shuttle or satellite. The International Space Station has to frequently alter its orbit in order to avoid colliding with the largest objects.
CleanSpace One will be developed by the Swiss Space Center at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne (EFPL) to launch in 2015-2016. When launched, the satellite will have to match the orbital plane of its target in order to approach it. Upon rendez-vous, it will utilize a gripping mechanism to grab and stabilize the target while traveling at high speeds of around 17,000mph. Once the target is acquired, CleanSpace One will remove both the debris and itself out of the Earth's orbit - burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.
The EFPL's website has artist's renditions of a CleanSpace One prototype, along with images and videos that illustrate how the "janitor satellite" will work to clean up the mess humanity has made in space.
Image: Launch of Cassini Orbiter and Huygens Probe on Titan IV. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.Tweet