Space junk recycling: the best idea to save money and avoid disasters

Recently, the remains of a Chinese rocket fell into the Indian Ocean. It could be worse. What if it was in a populated region? The best way to prevent such a tragedy would be the space junk recycling. Read more. 

It has been more than 60 years since the space race began and the launching of satellites and rockets became a daily routine.

After all those years more than 500,000 of debris (space junk) are released from satellites and rockets as they orbit around the Earth. The point is they all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph. 

In other words, the rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles.

The astronauts also accidentally let objects fall into orbit during spacewalks, such as a camera, spatula, glove, mirror, or a bag filled with tools. They even are at risk, since those small pieces may hit them at a speed at over 22,300 mph faster than a speeding bullet. 

Collisions with tiny pieces often leave pits and dings in the many satellites, telescopes, shuttles, spacecraft, or even a space station orbiting our planet. 

There are two types of orbits as the main routes of this space "junkyard" of satellites and rockets: 

  • Geostationary Earth Orbit - If a satellite reaches the end of its useful life, the owners seek to place it in a higher orbit, at a distance of 186 miles to 248 miles. This is an internationally accepted zone of protection. Satellites are believed to be crashing or exploding due to unused fuel or degraded batteries.
  • Low Earth Orbit - The risk of collisions increases in this region. This would create a rain of debris that could get even larger from the volume created by the chain reaction. If it "rains" on Earth, get out from underneath! 

    Another issue is the dismantling of large parts to prevent them from being "abandoned" in space. It does makes sense because only 10% of satellites and 25% of rockets are disintegrated in the atmosphere. The bulk of the waste (75%), would be the debris that is parked in the atmosphere, below 2,000 kilometers.  

    Ongoing programs aiming to solve the space debris issue: 

    Gateway Earth Development Group (GEDG)

    A project developed by group of academics from several universities around the world. The idea is to put into orbit the so-called Gateway Earth, a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other types of trash that orbit in space.

    RemoveDEBRIS

    It is a program developed at the University of Surrey in the UK. The goal is to launch "space boats" into space with nets and harpoons to catch debris. The system slows the objects down until they leave orbit and can be more easily hooked.

    Laser System

    The Chinese and Russian space agencies jointly developed an Earth-based laser system to remove small debris in orbit. The system allows the objects to slow down so that they enter the Earth's atmosphere in a spiral, facilitating their complete disintegration. 

    Doubts were aroused regarding the effectiveness of this method because its effect can be reverted to even smaller debris. 

    Orbital Debris Program

    The "Orbital Debris Program" was developed by NASA and its focus is to find more alternatives to reduce space debris at a lower cost. Special devices are designed to track the debris and remove it.   

    NASA takes the threat of collisions with space debris seriously and has a long-standing set of guidelines on how to deal with each potential collision threat.

    These guidelines, part of a larger body of decision-making aids known as flight rules, specify when the expected proximity of a piece of debris increases the probability of a collision enough that evasive action or other precautions to ensure the safety of the crew are needed.

    Project Phoenix

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed the "Project Phoenix" that aims to recycle reusable space junk parts and incorporate them into new space systems at low cost. 

    Projects to contain space debris are multiplying. Each outlining solutions that are not always short-term. More than 150 new satellites are planned to be launched in the next 10 years.

    This piece dropped from space! 

    Pieces of Skylab are now on display in a local museum in regional Western Australia. AAP Image

    Pieces of Skylab are on display in a local museum in Australia

    In the year 1979, the coast of Western Australia was hit by the largest piece of space junk ever. The 77-ton US space station Skylab disintegrated near Esperance, a town by the coast.

    The cost to collect the material was high, but several campaigns at the time raised the funds to reduce the damage.

    Astronomer Dino Nascimento, a researcher at the IAG/CASP-USP, raises an important point that is still little commented on: "The damage caused by space debris also reaches other planets, such as Mars. The great danger is in the batteries of drones and rovers, besides the remains of the vehicles that transported probes and satellites. Imagine how much of this debris would be lying around without being given proper attention? What if a "leak" of radioactive material from these batteries happened? A potential risk of contamination of nuclear material in the future?".

    Who pays the bill after all?

    International law establishes compensation from the agency responsible for the damage to the country where the damage occurred. In 1972, the UN issued a Statement of Responsibility that imposes severe sanctions on the "launching state" (responsible for manufacturing and launching the artifact).

    A National Security matter

    The term issued by the UN does not completely solve the problem caused to the country that has been affected by space junk. One cannot simply collect any piece or fragment in space without the possibility of creating political conflicts.


    Many satellites in orbit are privately owned, hence a National Security serious concern

    Space Junk Recycler (Northrop Grumman Artist Concept)

    Putting the Sun in the Spotlight

    One bold project is the "Space Junk Recycler," a parabolic solar reflector made of material with an extremely high melting point. Space junk would be collected by robotic arms.

    The recycler concentrates solar energy in a small spherical space, creating an intense heat source. The heat vaporizes the smallest existing debris and the larger debris would be melted in a kind of grid.

    After being diluted, all material is transformed into ingots, to be recycled in various formats through 3D printers. Since the recycler can be placed in orbit, all the work would be done in space.


    A rule-of-thumb cleanup of debris in space would be equivalent to catching microplastics in the sea, such is its complexity!

    Every beautiful house starts with a neat entrance. So is space: the cleaner it gets, the more beautiful Earth becomes!