On Monday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 departed from Florida with three tons of supplies, equipment, and new experiments for the crew of the International Space Station. As is often the case, the manifest included a few unusual things – including human sperm to be used in experiments regarding human reproduction in microgravity.
One such experiment, a technology demonstrator dubbed RemoveDEBRIS, aims to take on a growing threat to every nation’s orbital operations: junk. Space junk, which is primarily debris left behind by previous rocket launches or orbital assets that have exceeded their operational life, has been the focus of a number of projects fielded by nearly every space faring nation, and with good reason. With 23,000 pieces of orbital debris that are large enough to track, each traveling at around 17,000 miles per hour, launching rockets safely into low earth orbit and beyond may soon be nearly impossible, as the space above our heads becomes a shooting gallery loaded with our own discarded trash.
It’s no wonder, then, that countries like China, Russia, and the United States have such a vested interest in developing platforms that can intercept pieces of equipment orbiting the earth and force them into a reentry trajectory, burning the junk up and alleviating orbital traffic.
The thing is… in space, one man’s trash collector is another’s orbital weapons platform.