Light Rain and Breezy


Space cleanup is a Swiss mission

By Walt Braun

If you didn’t know there was a Swiss Space Center, you’ve probably got plenty of company. But if you also didn’t know there is a lot of junk in space, you have some catching up to do.

Scientists at the Swiss Space Center in Lausanne have space ambitions, just as their peers in other countries do. But the Swiss, perhaps because they’re Swiss, want the neighborhood above our planet tidied up. So they’re planning to launch a “janitor satellite,” which they’ve formally named CleanSpace One. Good for them.

It shouldn’t be Switzerland’s job to tidy up space; that small country hasn’t contributed much to the mess. Yes, there are two Swiss satellites up there, one launched in 2009 and another in 2010. Those are on the cleanup list.

But those two satellites are but a token of the total space junk. NASA, which has launched more objects into space than any other agency, says there are more than 500,000 pieces of junk in space. NASA even has maps and tracks much of the debris. Some pieces, like spent rocket boosters or dead satellites, are big; others could fit into one’s hand.

The Chinese, apparently to impress the world, added considerably to the mass of space junk in 2007 when they decided to destroy one of their satellites with a missile. They literally blew it to pieces — as many as 150,000 pieces — which like the other debris (except the occasional satellite that falls to Earth — are orbiting our planet at more than 17,000 miles per hour.

Woe to the satellite or manned spacecraft that gets struck by even a small piece of junk traveling at that speed.

If things go as the Swiss hope, their satellite will target a certain object, grab hold of it and stabilize it, and then take it back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. Trouble is, the Swiss have yet to figure out a way to keep their janitor satellite from burning up as well.

Volker Gass, director of the Swiss Space Center, is confident such obstacles will be overcome. And he’s thinking big. He doesn’t envision the Swiss cleaning up other nations’ junk, though if the price is right, that’s possible. Rather, he envisions “a whole family of ready-made systems” of various sizes that the Swiss can build and sell to other nations to help them clean up after themselves.

The Swiss might not conquer space, but if they can conquer space junk, they will have performed a valuable service.

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