There are 18,000 pieces of tracked space debris in orbit—and millions more smaller bits—all potentially fatal. To nudge them towards the atmosphere to burn up, one scientist proposes lasers, another proposes water.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the problem with debris eradication is that there's no money in it. Anybody can cough up a billion or so to launch a telecom satellite, but anyone who wants NASA or the ESA to start cleaning up has to come up with a plan that costs a lot less.
There's no money in it probably because nothing really bad has happened yet. According to that video down below, shuttle pilots have had near misses 12 times with pieces and parts that could've played serious havoc. Like so many busy intersections that are missing stop lights, the problem may require a fatal collision before money is made available. Though nobody died, the recent
mid-air collision of US and Russian satellites was at least some kind of wake-up call.
In the meantime, here are some low-budget proposals:
1. Jonathan Campbell at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL says the answer is lasers, what the WSJ says would be "existing low-power lasers in quick pulses" to "singe the surface of an object in space" to "help point it downward." Campbell calls this Project Orion, as in the great hunter in the sky, but the Orion lasers would be based on land. (Note to self: Don't ever fly over Orion lasers.)
2. Jim Hollopeter, who works for Satellite Communications in Austin, TX, likes water cannons mounted to rockets, or as the Journal says, "aging rockets loaded with water to spray orbiting junk" thereby gradually pushing it towards the atmostphere to burn up, along with the spent rocket itself. "The water would turn to steam," says the Journal.
3. Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA's Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, thinks we should give a hoot and just not litter. Rockets should not drop bolts and straps when they separate, and satellites should commit space hara-kiri, by steering themselves toward the atmosphere when their job is done. He's also looking into garbage collection strategies.
What definitely won't work:
• Big magnets - There's no iron in space debris.
• Powerful lasers - Would just make more space junk.
• Strong Nets - Cuz you're in space, not in some meadow chasing butterflies.