With a more quickly growing number of nations and private ventures reaching orbit than ever before, one issue of significant concern for all parties involved is space junk. Orbital debris comes from a wide variety of sources. It could include discarded rocket components, bits of trash accidentally released by orbiting astronauts, or pieces of broken satellites. Earth’s litter problem in space is already far-reaching and extremely treacherous. It promises to only become worse if we don’t find a way to remove the most dangerous bits of space junk before they have a chance to cause damage to anyone’s operational spacecraft or satellites.

Given this impending problem, a number of efforts have been mounted to capture and destroy large bits of orbital debris simply by getting ahold of them and reorienting them into a degrading orbit. As the junk falls into the Earth’s atmosphere, the friction will incinerate the debris, leaving a clearer sky for all of mankind. This strategy does represent one significant problem for national security, though: The ways one would capture and destroy space junk would work on most satellites, too.

This computer-generated orbital debris graphic displays currently tracked debris objects. (NASA)

 

It doesn’t take much to render a nation’s defense satellites worthless for a short time. A simple nudge would do in most cases. If you wanted to destroy an entire platform, all you’d need to do is capture it with a retractable arm and force it into a descent. Don’t have a retractable arm on your space weapon? Well, as the team at RemoveDEBRIS out of the University of Surrey in England have demonstrated, a simple spear will do quite nicely as well.