Space Junk is a major problem. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are more than 129 million pieces of debris in space. Moving at space-paced velocity even the smallest object can do severe damage to satellite, crewed space stations, and rockets.
In 2016 what was believed to be a paint flake hit the International Space Station causing one of its windows to chip. Like cleaning up our oceans, space clean up is an overwhelming job that isn’t made easier by the cost of space exploration.
But researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute think they have devised a way that is not only cheap and effective it's tiny. Meet OSCaR- a tiny cube satellite that has the ability to hunt down and de-orbit space junk.
Kessler Syndrome imminent
“There’s a real problem,” said Kurt Anderson, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer.
“The amount of observed debris is increasing faster now than the rate that we’re actually putting more objects into space. This is an indication that earliest stages of The Kessler Syndrome may be upon us.”
If you are unfamiliar with the Kessler Syndrome, it's basically a theory proposed back in 1978 by NASA scientist Donald Kessler who suggested that if there gets to be a large enough concentration of space debris they will create a flood of collisions that will result in even more debris.
This will continue to occur until areas of space are unusable and impenetrable due to the saturation of fast-moving junk.
Track down and destroy
To avoid this dire scenario Anderson and his team have developed OSCaR. OSCaR is created from three CubeSat satellites.
The tiny semi-autonomous space hunter will orbit the earth tracking down space junk which it will capture using it's onboard gun barrels, nets, and tethers.
OSCaR is on a five-year mission, after which it is programmed to destroy itself and its captured garbage to ensure it too doesn’t become a piece of dangerous space junk.
The research team hopes that their tiny space-debris hunting satellite can start by tracking down some of the 22,300 pieces of space rubbish that have been cataloged by the Space Debris database.
The device will use a combination of thermal, optical, and RADAR imaging, so it can go find fragments with very little on-ground supervision.
All space nations should contribute
“We tell OSCaR what to do and then we have to trust it,” Anderson said.
“That’s why this problem actually gets very hard, because we are doing things that a big, expensive satellite would do, but in a CubeSat platform.”
Anderson hopes that more OSCaR’s could be developed and sent to space as a regular part of any payload heading to the stars.
“There’s an informal agreement that’s been in place for a few years that people who put space objects up there should be practicing good citizenship,” Anderson said.
“We envision a day where we could send up an entire flock, or squadron, of OSCaRs to work jointly going after large collections of debris.”