(NewsNation) — Earth’s orbit is full of space junk like defunct satellites that long ago served their purpose. One study even estimated that 100 trillion pieces of space junk are floating outside the planet.
This space junk can damage operating satellites or even endanger astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
That’s why NASA recently awarded a contract to a startup company called TransAstra that is pioneering a new technology that may be able to capture all this space junk.
TransAstra has been developing technology with a lofty goal — capturing and mining asteroids for minerals. But the technology they’re developing could also be used to help clean up space debris, explained Alex Pilmer, chief business officer at the firm.
“If you can capture an asteroid, you can capture space junk,” Pilmer said.
Its proposed means of doing this is to use unstaffed capture bags that can contain space debris. Think of it like trash and recycling pickup but in outer space.
One type of debris they will target is called CubeSats — small satellites the size of a Rubik’s Cube.
After picking up the debris, there are two options for what could be done with it. First, the waste could be dropped into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up, but Pilmer is intrigued by a second option, which is being developed by a company called ThinkOrbital. It wants to build recycling centers in outer space that could process objects like the CubeSats.
“We would take it to their recycling depot, drop it there where then people could recycle and use that for parts or even melt it down to the raw materials that could be used in foundries for building other things,” Pilmer said.
If everything is done correctly, cleaning up space debris shouldn’t create additional pollution for the planet. But Pilmer did note that when larger pieces of space debris fall into the atmosphere, small amounts of what’s left occasionally fall onto the Earth. That’s one reason they are emphasizing the recycling option.
“Our idea is none of it would come back to Earth, it would all be stored in space,” he said.
As of now, TransAstra hopes to do an in-space demonstration of the technology sometime in the next one to two years.
There are a range of technological challenges the company has to overcome to make the capture and recycle process feasible. For instance, some debris may be tumbling, and the retrieval craft has to be able to grab it without tumbling itself.
But beyond the scientific obstacles, the other big obstacle Pilmer foresees is creating international cooperation to tackle space junk.
“You need almost a global consensus on how we’re going to pick up global debris,” Pilmer said, arguing that it will be challenging to get the world’s nations to agree on a funding mechanism to tackle space junk.