129 million pieces of debris larger than 1 mm in orbit around the Earth…
… 34,000 of which are at least 10 centimetres wide. According to European Space Agency estimates, the debris is mostly comprised of pieces of rockets, end-of-life satellites and tools lost by astronauts.
Decades of space exploration have led to this accumulation of debris. These objects travel at more than 28,000 km per hour and can lead to dangerous collisions with space stations and other satellites.
As Russia is one of the biggest polluters in space, Russian star-up StartRocket has devised a way to recover the debris and prevent it from regularly endangering the growing number of astronauts and satellites. It is developing a small satellite capable of trapping this debris using "sticky polymer foam stockings".
Space spider webs to clean up debris…
The founder of the Russian start-up, Vlad Sitnikov, compared his device to a "spider's web". Called the "Foam Debris Catcher", it consists of a series of small autonomous spaceships that would extrude long strands of sticky polymer foam capable of grasping any debris in their path. Trapped in orbit and then dragged towards the Earth, the debris would eventually burn up in the atmosphere.
Chemical engineer Aleksei Fedorov, who is leading the project, said that the formula for the foam has yet to be finalised.
First in-orbit tests scheduled for 2023
It will therefore be some time before we can discover how well the Foam Debris Catcher performs.
The start-up plans to first test the formula of the polymer foam it is developing on Earth. In 2022, it should send a cubesat (a nano-satellite weighing less than 1.33 kg, which will reduce launch costs) into Earth orbit to see how the foam behaves in space and finally it plans to complete the first full-scale tests as early as 2023.
StartRocket is not alone in developing new technologies to try to eliminate this space waste: China is working on lasers that would divert the trajectory of the debris to send it back to Earth, while ClearSpace - a spin-off from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) - has taken the lead in an international consortium supported by eight ESA member countries, and has just begun construction of its first satellite capable of capturing and de-orbiting space waste. Others have designed giant nets and harpooning systems.