Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Net Gains

God, these article titles are getting cornier by the day, I swear.

Back in April 2012, I was talking about space junk, and how its steady rise in quantity was eventually parodied/prophesied/something or other by the movie WALL-E. I was also mentioning that nobody had quite figured out how to get all that junk back down again, with the best anyone could come up with being to send it even further up in a 'graveyard orbit', which just kicks the can down the road. As such, ideas were being tossed around, but nothing really beyond the drawing board. The issues are: how are you going to pick up the junk, how are you going to do it without accidentally making more junk, and how are you going to get the retrieval device back down.

We're almost two years further down the road now, and it appears that JAXA, Japan's space agency, has something that they're prepared to go ahead and do a test launch for come late next month. The idea is, they have a satellite towing a tether, 300 meters long and about one meter thick. Behind that tether is a net with a magnetic charge, which is supposed to attract the usually-metal junk. When the net fills up enough, the satellite will be instructed to haul the whole mess down into the atmosphere, where it's all supposed to burn up on re-entry.

Is it going to work? Who knows. That's what experiments are for. But this is a small net, as far as we're speaking. If it does go well, JAXA is prepared to send up larger nets that can bring in bigger junk, including eventually rocket parts.

The main risk as far as 'accidentally making more junk' would essentially be either something smacking into the satellite, or far more likely, something smacking into some other something that the net had already collected, smashing one or the other (although hopefully those new bits of junk would become attached themselves). But then, that was kind of happening anyway.

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