The Ultimate Cleaning Job

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( — January 30, 2013) London, UK — Outer space is becoming an exceedingly messy place and scientists are turning their attention to methods that could be used to clean up space debris by space “janitors”.

This research is part of the Stardust project, which is headed by researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow as well as many other European universities and had recently received a funding boost. The aim of the Stardust project is to find the most effective and cost-efficient means of cleaning up space debris, although the project is still in its early stages.

Space debris refers to human-made objects that have gone into orbit around the planet. Commonly, space debris is made up of broken parts of satellites as they wear out or suffer damage. These items of debris could damage other satellites badly in the case of a collision, which would then create more hazardous debris, creating a vicious cycle. Small asteroids and meteorites can collide with satellites, and these are also considered by the Stardust Project team as debris to be cleaned up, even though they occur naturally in space. The theory is that cleaning up the debris in space is likely to be more cost-effective than repairing or replacing a damaged satellite, especially when the costs of disrupted communications systems are taken into account.

Similar to a plot from a work of science fiction, it is possible that the technology developed to rid outer space of debris and small asteroids could also be used to deflect or destroy a larger asteroid similar to the Schumacher-Levy comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994.

The ideas are, so far, only at the stage of general concepts. Suggestions so far have included the use of high-powered laser beams to vaporise space debris, and the use of nets, robotic arms or “tentacles” to catch the debris.

One of the more unusual items of space debris is a tool box that was accidentally set adrift by an astronaut carrying out repairs during a space walk outside the International Space Station. The astronaut put the tool box aside while dealing with a leaking grease gun and when she looked around for the tool box, it had drifted out of reach. This orbiting tool box has been jocularly referred to by astronomers as the “Tool Box cluster”, as a parody of the Jewel Box cluster, which is an actual star cluster found in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

A representative from the London-based cleaning company TSD Cleaning Services commented that the presence of space debris is not surprising and neither is the need to clean up space. “Humans are a messy species with a tendency to leave everything everywhere – just look at some of the homes and offices we have to clean. And now we’re messing up space as well as the earth. But I have to say that the idea of cleaning up debris by zapping it with a laser gun is rather fun. Perhaps we’ll get to use the technology on earth after they’ve developed it properly for use in space.”

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Daniela Sarasakalova – TSD Manager / Operations Manager

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