Space junk is a serious problem. In the past 50 years, everything from non-working satellites, dust from motors, defunct rockets, and even paint chips have been whipping around the globe at roughly 17,500 miles per hour. At speeds like that, even a paint chip is going to cause massive problems for an astronaut on a space walk or a shuttle docking at the International Space Station.
But Space.com reports that a possible solution to all this space junk is in the works. A satellite out of Britain is scheduled to launch next year that will test how a solar sail can act as an atmospheric break for itself, sending it back to Earth like a small, harmless meteor. Scientists hope that success in this one-year mission could lead to further improvements, such as a bigger solar sail spacecraft trawling around the planet, picking up the estimated 6,000 tons of space trash circling the globe.
The new solar satellite, called the CubeSail, would launch in late 2011. The size of a shoe box, it would unfurl a 16 square-foot sail. Vaios Lappas is an aerospace engineer at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom and a researcher on this project. As he told Space.com, "Using the sail as a 'propellantless' deorbiting system will allow the extra mass gained to be used for payloads or to extend the lifetime of a satellite further." Further, the sail could prove to be a reliable source of energy for future satellites, providing a cheaper form of propulsion. So far, no spacecraft has even flown with a solar sail.
Scientists hope the CubeSail may eventually attach itself to other pieces of space junk and take them down. Researchers are developing a way the CubeSail could catch up to speeding junk and then hurtle the pieces back to Earth. In the meantime, new satellites with a mass of up to 1,100 pounds may soon have CubeSails attached to allow them to escape the fate of becoming space junk.
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