Pac-Man... in Space! Scientists Build a Satellite-Munching Space Predator

Pac-Man... in Space! Scientists Build a Satellite-Munching Space Predator

Orbital debris is becoming a larger problem every day, and has adverse effects on both the cost and safety of space missions. To help clean up the mess, a team of Swiss researchers have announced the planned launch of CleanSpaceOne, a satellite which will hunt down junk and gobble it up.

Our planet's upper atmosphere is a mess, and it's about time we cleaned it up. The Earth is surrounded by layers of orbiting space debris, and not only do we have few ways to keep track of it all, but until now, there has been no tangible effort to clean things up. That all changes thanks to researchers from Switzerland's École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), who are taking a big step towards sweeping the junk out of our skies.

Their proposed methods will remind nostalgic gamers of popular ectovore, Pac-Man. EPFL has announced their plans to launch a "de-orbiting satellite," a device that will hunt down smaller, de-commissioned satellites, swallow them whole using a conical "mouth", and then fall back down to Earth, burning up on re-entry. Ok, let's be fair, that last part sounds more like an obnoxious Kirby move in Smash Bros.

This is not the first announcement this year of a plan to deal with space junk.

With luck, CleanSpaceOne will launch by 2018. The project is estimated to cost about 10 million Swiss francs (a little over 10 million US dollars), but this is not going to be a one-shot deal. EPFL hopes to develop a family of like devices, capable of "eating" various sizes of space junk, and selling them to national space agencies. Because each such satellite is designed to destroy itself, part of the project's goal is to make its construction as sustainable as possible.

Space junk is an enormous problem and it is a relief to know that researchers are taking a proactive approach to it. The trash is composed mainly of decommissioned abandoned satellites, spent rocket stages, and broken bits of spacecraft. Each of these are, in turn, orbiting the Earth at unimaginably high speeds, and collisions are not only frequent but devastating. In-use satellites can be knocked out of orbit or demolished altogether by an unpredictable bit of shrapnel the size of a thumbnail, and the same can happen to manned missions. Thankfully this has never occurred, but that hasn't stopped us from imagining how it would go down.

The International Space Station has to make occasional adjustments to its own orbit in order to avoid collisions.

NASA currently tracks about 16,000 of these objects that are larger than 10cm in diamter. Thanks to the high-speed collisions, however, the amount of relatively-"dust-like" debris is exponentially greater than that There is no technology yet that can track these smaller "bullets" of trash.

The space junk problem has even been parodied in Futurama and Pixar's Wall-E.

An even greater threat to humanity's continued growth, however, is the tragic behavior known as Kirbycide. How can we end this madness? Is cleaning up Earth's exosphere worthwhile, if we end up resorting to such deplorable tactics?

Source: EPFL

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Funny, my first thought was You Only Live Twice, though that might only be because autogyros (like the WA-116 that was used in the film) were in the news not that long ago...

As much of a problem as space junk is, building Unicron doesn't seem the best way to handle it.

RelativityMan:
Funny, my first thought was You Only Live Twice, though that might only be because autogyros (like the WA-116 that was used in the film) were in the news not that long ago...

It was my first thought too. Its a dead ringer for the opening sequence

I thought they were working of a laser broom as the first means of performing clean up? You know, bombarding partcles with light ... causing them to tumble and rapidly decelerate .... so on and so forth.

Ok, I get that burning up the space debris is far more efficient than trying to salvage it, but why does the Pac-man satellite need to destroy itself too? Why couldn't it just collect the debris and then push it in the direction of earth?

Already two reference to You Only Live Twice.

Anyhoo, this doesn't seem a great idea, probably end up making more mess while trying to very slowly take stuff down. But, have to wait and see if this is a thing, or just an announcement

All these years of smash bros and I never once thought of that kirby move. I am so very ashamed. Using Yoshi to crap out someone as an egg to fall to their doom has always been a garunteed chuckle nonetheless.

Ot: What happened to the laser burning solution? It seems like this is a more wasteful and costly idea, but I know little of the costs of building space-lasers so only an assumptiom.

Yea, the space laser thing seems like a much better idea. We don't have to continually launch things into orbit and it doesn't destroy itself for every use.

10 million dollars to destroy one piece of space junk? Sounds like a silly cash grab designed as something useful. I mean, it's not like the Swiss have ever been known to resort to unethical practices to obtain large amounts of money. This problem is already way too big for such a stupidly expensive, one-off solution.

Lasers would be a much better idea (like was linked in the article). Although I suspect it'll come down to having professional garbage teams going out into space and either destroying or capturing every errant piece of debris (like the anime series Planetes).

JCAll:
As much of a problem as space junk is, building Unicron doesn't seem the best way to handle it.

Hey, it was either Unicron or Planetes. And while it's a cool anime, it is NOT my childhood. This is:

When your childhood invoolves you watching a monstrous planet chewing a civilization to bits, you have had a gooood childhood.

 

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