Here on Earth, people have gradually warmed up to the idea of fully autonomous robots for cleaning. These nifty little guys have been made available on the civilian market for since the late 90s and early 2000s. The newest breakthrough in cleaning robots comes in the form of a satellite. A prototype built by scientists, fully equipped with net and harpoon, has been sent to the International Space Station for testing. The robot, dubbed RemoveDEBRIS, if successful, could lead to a revolutionary new tool for cleaning up the space junk that is beginning to collect at alarming rates around the Earth.
Over 60 years ago, Sputnik 1, the first-ever satellite, was launched into orbit around the Earth. In basics, its been slightly more than a half-century since man started littering the space around our planet. A very long time without having any housekeeping, so to speak. At this point, scientists around the world are beginning to work on solutions to this problem before it gets too much further out of hand.
The European Commission, along with a host of private partners, are funding the project. Including Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, who built the actual spacecraft, and Airbus who designed and supplied the harpoon.
It has been estimated that at least 7,500 tons, or 16.5 million pounds, of space trash are orbiting Earth. As of 2013, NASA reported over a half of a million individual pieces of trash traveling around the planet. The junk travels at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. That's some fast trash! It is also safe to assume that the number has increased over the past few years.
The space junk ranges in shape and size. Everything from entire spacecraft and satellites which have lost communication with Earth to nuts, bolts, screws, and spent rocket shells. Tens of thousands of these pieces of junk are baseball size or larger, over half a million pieces of junk are the size of small rocks or larger, and countless millions more are barely detectable because they are so little.
The RemoveDEBRIS was launched Monday onboard a Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX. It is expected to dock with the International Space Station on April 26th. The rocket is carrying several other supplies for the Station as well.
Scientists are excited to receive the results of the cleaning robots testing. Most advancements in space cleaning technology up to date have been centered around robotic arms. It will be more than interesting to see how much advantage the net and harpoon method brings to the table.