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This Pac-Man Spacecraft Will Devour a Satellite

Swiss researchers are designing a tiny satellite to eat their defunct cube satellite and clean up space junk

Swiss researchers want to build a spacecraft to eat their tiny satellites after they stop working. (EPFL/Jamani Caillet)
smithsonian.com

There’s a lot of trash in space. Rather than add more to the space garbage dump, Swiss researchers hope to build a spacecraft that eats small, non-functioning satellites, Michael Rundle reports for Wired UK.

Scientists at Switzerland’s EPFL Center for Space Engineering announced their plans this week. However, the mission, dubbed CleanSpace One, has been in the works for a long time.

Switzerland launched its first satellite in 2009—a tiny cubesat called SwissCube. But researchers knew that like all satellites, the SwissCube wouldn't last forever. After three years of brainstorming, researchers are now in the process of designing and building a spacecraft equipped with a camera to find the satellite and a net to snag and eat it in orbit.

SwissCube is tiny, a mere 4 inches by 4 inches, with a highly reflective surface. That makes it tricky to spot. Both tracking down the satellite and gobbling may prove precarious. “It only takes one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space,” Muriel Richard-Noca, an engineer who leads the CleanSpace One team, said in a statement.

Cruising around the Earth at a little over four miles per second, even small pieces of debris can cause problems for the working satellites and astronauts. NASA and other space agencies monitor debris, but no one has a perfect long term-solution (though lasers are definitely on the table). The project serves as a field test to see what strategies work best when it comes to cleaning up space junk.

SwissCube completed its research mission in 2014, and CleanSpace One could launch as early as 2018.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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