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So, Who’s Cleaning Up All the Space Trash?

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As we continue to venture out into the cosmos, there is one thing that will inevitably follow: trash. Ever since mankind first made its way into space in the 50’s, we have left behind a stream of trash, originating from spent rockets, fragments caused by collisions, old satellites, waste from the International Space Station, and a variety of other sources. In the past 70 years, low Earth orbit (LEO) has become so populated by space trash, and in the next ten years, thousands of new satellites are to be launched, only exacerbating the problem.

SpaceX has plans to send up over 12,000 small internet beaming objects over the next few years. Other companies like Planet and OneWeb have plans to launch hundreds of similar satellites into low-Earth orbit, and this isn’t counting the thousands of different small private organizations that are participating in similar operations.

Space trash orbiting the Earth

To make matters worse, space debris isn’t just peacefully floating throughout space. It is all orbiting the Earth at speeds upwards of 17,500 mph, making for potentially violent collisions, which can pose a serious problem for manned space flight.

This has become such a dilemma that NASA is exploring options in developing solutions to fix this issue. One exciting method being explored by NASA is something they’re calling the Heat Melt Compactor. This device would be used to gather up space debris then blast it with extreme heat, melting it down to a fraction of its original size, which could then be repurposed to be used in rocket propellant.

NASA has turned to private companies as well, to work towards alleviating the problem. SpaceX is slated to launch a new European satellite designed to test different methods of cleaning up space debris. This will be the first in-space test using new technologies to collect and remove larger pieces of debris. The satellite will be testing several methods – one involves deploying a balloon-like device that will unfurl a net (similar to those used in commercial fishing) which would collect the surrounding space debris. Another method involves a harpoon device that would be attached to a tether, which is hypothesized to be effective in removing larger pieces of debris.

China, one of the worst offenders of space trash, proposed a radical solution that is much more in line with the science-fiction nature of all of this, in the form of lasers. A study published by scientists showed that space debris could be blasted out of space using radiation emanating from land-based lasers.

So the answer to our question is… no one. Perhaps, we’ll soon see massive lasers blasting trash out of the sky. Certainly sounds sci-fi, but this is a real problem that could have serious consequences as we continue to explore space.

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