Orbiting Trash Trawlers Planned to Snare Space Debris

Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
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Satellites are but one source of orbiting debris. Bring on the space garbage trucks! (Photo: NASA TV / Reuters)

There's no dearth of ideas when it comes to cleaning up the space junk—“derelict” objects like spacecraft, rocket stages, upper-stage rockets and their parts—currently orbiting the Earth.

Electrodynamic tethers. Gravity gradient-oriented drag tapes. Boom-deployed drag sails. Satellites with on-board chemical propulsion systems. Earlier this month, TakePart reported on a GOLD balloon.

Turns out, these methods might be angling for first runner-up in the Cleanse the Universe pageant.

Thanks to funding from DARPA—that would be the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency—the frontrunner for the crown is now the Electrodynamics Debris Eliminator, or EDDE.

Jerome Pearson, president of Star Inc., the company behind the idea, has described EDDE as a “space garbage truck,” reports TechWorld.

If that’s not clear enough, try this visual image.

Space is the ocean, and EDDE is a trawling net.

Only instead of catching fish, the trawler will be snagging nagging space trash.

According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, more than 19,000 “derelict” objects larger than 10 centimeters currently orbit Earth.

Treehugger explains the EDDE process in greater detail:

The idea is that EDDE is a vehicle equipped with about 200 nets, which could extend out to scoop up garbage. It could then fling the garbage back to earth, allowing it to splash land in the South Pacific, or send the object closer to the planet so it can orbit out of the way until it decays, or even bring the pieces back so they can be reused to create other equipment. Creators estimate that 12 EDDE vehicles could capture all 2,465 identified pieces of junk in just seven years. Seven years after the idea launches, that is.

EDDE is not without imperfections—two of which stand out.

Twelve EDDE’s may require "space traffic control," writes TechWorld.

And there might be a controversial secondary functionality—EDDE could, in theory, be used by the military to remove enemy satellites from orbit.

Techworld reports that Star Inc. expects to launch a test flight in 2013 with removal beginning in 2017.

According to a report from Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, 40 percent of space debris is produced by China. The U.S.'s share accounts for 27.5 percent.

Star Inc.'s Pearson was one of the first supporters of the "space elevator," a 1970s concept that would take materials and people from Earth to a point in outer space.

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