A defunct satellite spent early April hurtling through space toward the body of an old rocket, threatening a collision that the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Consortium estimated could generate more than 4 million pieces of debris.
In the end, the two objects just missed each other, but the incident was a reminder of the increasing prevalence—and danger—of space junk. There are more than 8,000 tons of garbage in orbit, made up of about 26,000 objects wider than 10 centimeters, according to the European Space Agency. Any object of that size could destroy an active satellite, posing a constant threat to the systems that provide everything from weather observation to disaster management to military communications. The worst-case scenario is what’s known as the Kessler Syndrome, in which collisions create additional debris, leading to more collisions until whole swaths of orbit become unusable.
A startup called Astroscale Holdings Inc. is trying to solve this problem by using a spacecraft with a robotic arm to snag inoperative satellites, an alternative to projects from recent years that aim to clean up space with huge nets and junk-grabbing harpoons. If Astroscale’s craft can grab debris without losing control in the process, the next step would be to push dead satellites toward Earth so they’ll burn up as they reenter the atmosphere.
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