Trackable objects in Low Earth Orbit.  Image Credit:  ESA
Trackable objects in Low Earth Orbit. Image Credit: ESA

Earth, Satellites, Space Flight

Russia Wants to Build “Sweeper” to Clean up Space Debris

29 Nov , 2010 by

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Russia is looking to build a $2 billion orbital “pod” that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth. According to a post on the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos’ Facebook site, (which seems to confirm an earlier article by the Interfax news agency) the cleaning satellite would work on nuclear power and be operational for about 15 years. The Russian rocket company, Energia proposes that they would complete the cleaning satellite assembly by 2020 and test the device no later than in 2023.

“The corporation promises to clean up the space in 10 years by collecting about 600 defunct satellites on the same geosynchronous orbit and sinking them into the oceans subsequently,” Victor Sinyavsky from the company was quoted as saying.

Sinyavsky said Energia was also in the process of designing a space interceptor that would to destroy dangerous space objects heading towards the Earth.

No word on exactly how the space debris cleaner would work, of how it would push dead satellites and other debris into a decaying orbit so that objects would burn up in the atmosphere, or if it might somehow gather up or “vacuum” debris. But at least someone is thinking about space debris and asteroid deflection and putting more than just a few rubles (60 billion of ’em) towards these concepts.

Sources: Xinhuanet, Facebook

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Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.



21 Responses

  1. Herkfixer says:

    How much you wanna bet U.S. Intelligence satellites will accidentally be “pushed” or docked with and downloaded.

  2. Sirius_Alpha says:

    Aren’t they also planning a robotic lunar base around that time?

    I’m guessing Roscosmos and/or Energia expect to get a *major* increase in funding some time soon.

  3. GekkoNZ says:

    I think this is a great idea, and im glad *somebody* is willing to put some serious money into tackling this growing problem. Good on you Russia.

    As to the fears they will be used for nefarious purposes, the US would be tracking that thing wherever it goes, they would know right away if it was too close to a spy sat. If Russia wanted a spy sat dead, they would just use an anti-satellite missile. You couldnt hide what this thing is doing.

    Just a bit of fear mongering.

  4. Kawarthajon says:

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if this machine got smashed by some space junk and contributed to the space junk problem.

  5. Aqua says:

    Seems to me.. that if you have a high power nuclear energy source you could do all kindsa crazy things, like painting offensive objects with pulsed microwaves and/or lasers to create a cloud of charged particles around the object which could interact with the solar wind and the Earth’s magneto tail… electromagnetic orbital braking anyone?

  6. Aqua says:

    AND with such a device, one could power and propel several interplanetary probes? I like that idea. Aren’t they pushing a nuclear powered rocket design or two anyway?

  7. Jon Hanford says:

    I’m not sure if Russian nuclear powered satellites in Earth orbit is really such a good idea. In the past, old decommissioned Soviet RORSATS (nuclear powered radar satellites), began leaking sodium-potassium (NaK) coolant at altitudes of between 500-620 miles. These high decommissioning orbits were chosen in the hopes that by the time the satellites reentered the atmosphere (several hundred years), most of the radioactivity would be at acceptable levels. The Haystack radar facility in Massachusetts first detected a growing population of tiny objects, later identified as lost coolant, in 1995. There are now an estimated 110,000 coolant droplets (over 320 lbs) in long term orbits, posing a definite hazard for LEO satellites. As a added bonus, no one knows if the droplets are radioactive at this time.

    The Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) was found to have impacted some of this coolant during its’ five years in space! In addition, two later Soviet test satellites, Cosmos 1818 and Cosmos 1867, were also spotted leaking NaK coolant in 2008. These droplets are 2-3 inches in diameter and smaller. And of course, Cosmos 954 (another RORSAT), made an unplanned reentry over Canada in 1978. I think I’ll temper my enthusiasm over any plans by the Russians of nuclear powered satellites in LEO, given their past record. Space.com has more info on these leaky Soviet sats:

    http://www.space.com/news/mystery_monday_040329.html
    http://www.space.com/news/090115-soviet-satellite-cosmos-1818.html

  8. Manu says:

    “collecting about 600 defunct satellites on the same geosynchronous orbit and sinking them into the oceans subsequently”

    There seems to be a problem here. If something is sent to clean up debris, it’s likely to be either to low orbit (where most of the problem is, but difficult to clean up – even in 10 years) _or_ in geostationary orbit, where it would be easier to do the job, but would not effect the LO problem. I don’t think _one_ sweeper could do both. Even nuclear.

    Also, why, and how to bring down stuff from GO into the ocean? I’m not supposed to literally understand “collect”, am I? Pushing around up to 600 1-10 ton satellites around _together_ isn’t going to be very effective. Way to clean the GO is to send dead sats a little above: they remain up there as very long term junk.

    About nuclear power: same thing here as for some past American proposals. It would require a change in international agreements; and it would (re)start a space arms race because nuclear powered spacecraft is far too good for the military (allowing indefinite orbit changes) to let it go to waste.

    I very much doubt cleaning space junk is what this is _really_ about.

  9. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    The one problem is that this puts a nuclear reactor in orbit, and then who is going to take care of that once the mission is done or the spacecraft has reached the end of its life. The idea is ok in some respects. Getting big pieces of space junk out prevents them from shedding off pieces which are orbital bullets. The best plan is to have retro rockets on LEO satelites so the problem does not build up further.

    LC

  10. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    Great idea.
    As Alan Davey sang in 1993,
    “They call me Sputnik Stan
    Spaceways maintenance man
    I see a satellite about to fade
    Got to collect
    Weigh it in, and get paid”

  11. scozy says:

    i think i might look at this too simply- we have lots of space round us and a lot of intresting objects that need anylizing, defunct sats could be used to “crash” into them; and as for the nuclear waste why not point them at the sun and send them out in a blaze of glory, a little bit more radiation in the sun wouldnt be that bad.
    scozy

  12. munisano says:

    I think SCOZY is on to something here. Rather than collect and remove all the sizeable space junk, maybe some of the largest bits can be retrofitted with some sort of rocket booster and control device. In this way the “junk” can be repurposed to deflect possible future small asteroid collisions with the Earth? Not sure if it would be cheaper to retrofit junk that’s already in LEO or GO or to launch purpose built rockets from Earth?

  13. Aqua says:

    The thing is… the Russians ARE building a nuclear electric (MHD) rocket engines. Believe me, should this technology work out, most of the time those vehicles will be far enough away from Earth, it won’t be a problem. Mars transit(s) will originate from Lunar orbit.

  14. Aqua says:

    That is to say.. low power output near the Earth, slingshot around the Moon and stomp on the accelerator!

  15. Aqua says:

    Lets assume the Russian intend to orbit such a device. It seems logical to think it would be located in a very high orbit, geosynchronous or even at a Lagrange point?

  16. Aqua says:

    ..Lagrange point, meaning where a permanent power source might reside for multiple aps.

  17. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Sending something to the sun is hard. The reason is the following. In heliocentric coordinates the Earth orbits the sun at 29.5km/sec. To get something to fall into the sun it requires the mass be sent on a velocity v = 29.5km/sec in the opposite direction the Earth orbits. Then the sun’s gravity can take over and it falls right in. To send a craft on a velocity with v = 29.5km/sec requires a lot of fuel. The fastest launch vehicle can send a craft at about 14-15km/sec, and escape velocity from the solar system is 50km.3km/sec, which with the Earth’s velocity is a delta vee = 20.8km/sec. We are not able to muster this up, so we use the gravitational kicks from Jupiter to get spacecraft that far out.

    LC

  18. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    For heaven sake….

    Bravo! Good old Russians have decided to do some about the problem that the Americans,, basically refuse point blank to do anything about it! I’ve already made too many comments on this very subject over the years to UT stories — that don’t bear repeating again; but one point need repeating….. American satellites have the majority of the space junk and stuff up there (and have lost or dumped the most, I.e. from gloves to toolbagss), that it ought to be doing something about it. As we have historically learnt from all the failing rubbish falling from the sky and onto foreign territory, most of these US agencies couldn’t give a tinkers toss, unless of course, it is either valuable or isn’t falling into your own backyard.

    Who can forget the UT story of the deliberate dumping of the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) from the ISS into the Southern Ocean on 2nd November 2008 within Australian Territorial Waters ’ threatening the endangered orange roughy fish.

    How about that ninny, Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper, losing her $100,000 tool bag in LEO from the ISS on the 18th December,2008, and the stinking attitude by all on the ground in that it was “just and accident.” The woman should have been dragged over the coals for doing such a stupid thing, but instead the lame excuse by the ISS Flight Director, Ginger (ninja) Kerrick was; “You’ve got to remember, we are working with humans here and we are prone to human error. We do the best we can, and we learn from our mistakes.” (Heide by the way was actually from Minnesota, so would you expect else from that part of the US?)

    Sure it would have been hysterical if it splatted some other satellite or manned spacecraft! As I said before, imagine a dead astronaut or cosmonaut orbiting the Earth surrounded by debris from some destroy craft by space junk. They would orbit the Earth above our heads for decades, with no chance of recuse for there hapless family at home! Worse LEO would be off limits to EVERYONE for decades (or even longer!)

    To directly quote Tega Jessa in her UT article “Space Junk” from 21st July 2009;

    “It might seem easy to dismiss the potential problems posed by space junk. For starters, it’s all outside our atmosphere, so there is no immediate threat to the planet. It’s all in the vacuum of space, so there is little that can be really disturbed by the presence of our man made stuff; especially in a region of space that has natural debris such a meteors, asteroids, and space dust. If it comes to the worst most of the stuff would simply burn up in the atmosphere if their orbits decayed enough to be pulled in by the Earth‘s gravity.

    However, this thinking is dangerously nonchalant. If not dealt with effectively, space junk can present new and unnecessary challenges to future space exploration. The main reason is the speed of the objects in space. If you have ever been in a hurricane or tornado you know one of the things you are told to do is board up the windows of your home and try to keep indoors in an enclosed space. We know to do these things high speed winds can accelerate every object, turning them into lethal missiles. This is just with objects probably flying through the air at 200 km per hour. Think about being in a storm where objects could travel at 15,000 km per hour. You wouldn’t even be safe in the innermost room of your house. This is the potential danger to equipment and people posed by space junk.”

    Damn right! Frankly I’d think even the Fédération Française de Ski attempting to making the snowfields safe for competitors in ski show more commitment to fixing the issue than the US or NASA would ever imagine!!

    Good on the Russian for wanting to taking up the initiative!!

  19. Cosmic Super Ape says:

    Russia wants to clean up space junk more power too them! Reading some of the comments you’d think the cold war was still going on!

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