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Navy Wants to Thwart Space Debris By Releasing More Space Debris

Floating hunks of metal, left over from half a century of space exploration and satellite deployment, litter the near-Earth regions of space. As Smithsonian has reported: It’s [an] enormous cloud of nuts, bolts, shards of metal, satellite fragments and empty rocket thrusters that is floating invisibly above our planet. After decades of space exploration, there are [...]

space debris

Satellites and refuse litter low Earth orbit. Photo: European Space Agency

Floating hunks of metal, left over from half a century of space exploration and satellite deployment, litter the near-Earth regions of space. As Smithsonian has reported:

It’s enormous cloud of nuts, bolts, shards of metal, satellite fragments and empty rocket thrusters that is floating invisibly above our planet. After decades of space exploration, there are now more than 500,000 pieces of artificial debris greater than half an inch in size—detritus that will continue to orbit for decades. This swarm of debris is a menace for spaceflight, communications satellites, and pretty much anything else we might want to do in space.

This space junk’s most recent victim was none other than one of the giant observation windows in the International Space Station’s Cupola, which provides some of the most amazing views from the station.

Scientists working with the Naval Research Laboratory think they have a solution. They want to put a few dozen tones of new space debris into orbit.

…he essential idea is that dust, if artificially deployed on orbit in opposite direction to the debris trajectory, can induce an enhanced drag on the debris. The novelty is that by choosing the dust characteristics, for instance, mass density, size, etc., it is possible to synchronize the rate of dust and debris descent. This offers the possibility to clear a very large volume of small debris by deploying a modest amount of dust, 20 to 40 tons, in a narrow layer and “sweeping” of the debris volume by the dust layer.

Though more than a little ironic, such fighting-fire-with-fire tactics work well in other arenas, most notably: fighting fire.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Space Garbage: The Dark Cloud Above 

The Problem with Space Junk

Casting a High-Tech Net for Space Trash

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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