Space junk is a serious if little-appreciated problem. Dead satellites, spent booster rockets, and other orbiting technical garbage place active satellites and manned craft in significant peril. In a culturally appropriate effort, the Swiss Space Center is launching the CleanSpace program to tidy up low-earth orbit.
CleanSpace One is a small (30cm x 10cm x 10cm) satellite that the Swiss are hoping to complete and launch within the next three to five years. The test target will be the Swisscube, an Earth-observation satellite approximately the size of a modern plastic coffee canister. If it proves successful, it may open a new era in orbital janitorial services.
A CleanSpace satellite is expected to function much like that stuffed animal claw-grab game in front of your local convenience store. As the CleanSpace vehicle approaches the particle to be captured, its grappler extends and clenches the target. After it has captured its designated piece of junk, it deorbits and both the CleanSpace and its captured material burn up in the atmosphere.
It sounds simple enough, but the technology that will make it happen is still in development. Creating effective miniature ion engines and developing onboard gear that can coordinate a rendezvous with something smaller than a car battery in the oceanic emptiness above the atmosphere are just two issues that need to be resolved before the first flight.
Provided the technical challenges can be overcome, the Swiss are hoping to expand the idea into a family of orbital Roombas to offer to conscientious space programs. If collisions between satellites are to be avoided (and high-velocity debris sprays from those collisions are to be prevented) this high-altitude housekeeping will likely become a major part of space programs.
Photo Credit: EPFL
(Hat tip to The Lone Scout!)