DARPA Wants A Few Good Space Debris Cleaners

Pentagon seeks solutions for clearing space junk from Earth orbit

Mad science agency DARPA has a new addition to its wish list: technology to clean up thousands of pieces of orbiting space junk. Surely, world peace can’t come far behind on the agenda.

Satellites and manned missions alike have had to dodge a growing swarm of orbital debris in recent years. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network has detected more than 35,000 man-made objects since the space age began over 50 years ago, with 20,000 such objects currently remaining in orbit.

DARPA also noted that the number of cataloged debris objects has actually jumped by almost 50 percent since January 2007. That uptick in space junk comes courtesy of the Chinese government destroying a satellite in 2007, and a collision between an active U.S. satellite and a retired Russian communications satellite this year.

In a perhaps belated response, the Pentagon agency issued a call for possible cleanup proposals yesterday. It noted a special interest in debris ranging from 1 mm crumbs to entire derelict spacecraft and used rocket segments, and asked for a general cleanup timetable ranging from days to years.

The Register reports that U.S. aerospace giant Boeing has already listed itself as an “interested vendor” for the project. Also on the list for the busy bees at Boeing — morphing helicopter blades and figuring out how to control robot swarms with simple body motions.

There’s already a few proposals floating out there for taking down orbital debris, such as a giant parachute shroud that can mercifully end a satellite’s life without adding to the space junkyard. But if the U.S. Air Force Command gets its electronic “space fence” upgrade to track all orbital objects greater than two inches, the cleanup job could become just that much more daunting.

[via The Register]