The orbit around Earth is a very messy place and the Pentagon’s far-out research arm wants to do something about it. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency put out a notice last week requesting information on possible solutions to the infamous space debris problem.
“Since the advent of the space-age over five decades ago, more than thirty-five thousand man-made objects have been cataloged by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network,” the agency notes. “Nearly twenty-thousand of those objects remain in orbit today, ninety-four percent of which are non-functioning orbital debris.”
These figures do not even include the objects too small to count. Hundreds of thousands of these smaller objects are estimated to exist, and as debris hits other debris, it creates even more small pieces, exponentially increasing the objects that could threaten satellites and spacecraft.
Space debris has long been a concern as the number of satellites in orbit has increased over the years. But the issue was again highlighted in 2007, when a Chinese anti-satellite missile test created a massive debris field of some 40,000 pieces. The next year, the U.S. conducted its own shoot down of an errant satellite, creating yet another field of debris. The concern is that these pieces of debris could strike satellites, or a manned spacecraft, like the International Space Station.
It doesn’t take much to cause a catastrophe; even something as small as a paint chip could prove potentially disastrous if it struck the space shuttle. Darpa is looking for “solutions that could effectively remove significant amounts of debris in a cost-effective fashion.” No doubt, there will be a good mix of creative, unusual and bizarre suggestions.