Space junk mission leads 2017 rocket launches

Published 8:32 AM EST, Wed January 18, 2017
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Story highlights

Scientists warn that space junk is threatening space exploration

New mission aims to test debris removal ideas

Saturn probe Cassini to make dramatic end to odyssey

China planning ambitious lunar mission

(CNN) —  

Space needs cleaning if costly catastrophic collisions are to be avoided, scientists warn.

Several litter-picking ideas to remove space junk from Earth orbit, including a net, a harpoon and a sail are due to be tested later in 2017.

Led by scientists from the Surrey Space Centre in the UK and funded by the European Commission, the RemoveDEBRIS project aims to tackle the growing problem of orbiting garbage that threatens satellites vital for the Internet, cell phones and navigation.

Space exploration ‘at risk’

The group estimates that there is more than 7,000 tons of junk in circulation and NASA says more than 20,000 of the larger pieces are being tracked.

Debris ranges in size from large chunks of dead satellites and used rockets to flecks of paint. They are moving so fast – faster than a bullet – that even strikes from small fragments could be disastrous.

A chip in a window on the International Space Station (ISS) was recently photographed by visiting European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake. It is thought to have been caused by a paint flake or a miniscule metal fragment.

RemoveDEBRIS lead scientist Jason Forshaw told CNN: “We are reaching a situation where there’s a huge amount of junk in space. People say space is big, but the reality is that the junk is contained in orbits that are commonly used.”

The RemoveDEBRIS mission aims to tests a net for catching rogue satellites.
Surrey Space Centre, 2016
The RemoveDEBRIS mission aims to tests a net for catching rogue satellites.

He warned that missions costing hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk, with a real chance of satellites being “wiped out.”

READ: Space harpoon to nail orbital garbage

In partnership with Airbus and several others, the $15.7 million mission aims to release a small cube to test a variety of tools to grab the junk.

Once captured, debris be dragged back into the atmosphere where it would burn up. Another system uses a harpoon and what the team calls a “dragsail” that could be attached to larger pieces.

Cassini mission to end in fiery death

As one mission begins, another is coming to an end in 2017 as the Saturn probe Cassini is prepared for the final phase of its 20-year odyssey.

Launched in 1997, it has been sending data from the gas giant since 2004 but is now running low on fuel and when it runs out operators will not be able to control the spacecraft.

NASA and its mission partners from 17 countries want to prevent a possible collision and contamination of Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan. They have chosen to send Cassini to a fiery death in Saturn’s atmosphere.

But in what NASA is calling a “grand finale,” Cassini will leap over Saturn’s rings and make a “final series of daring dives between the planet and the inner edge of the rings.”

Cassini’s primary mission was to last four years but has been extended twice. NASA says on the project website that the spacecraft will collect “incredibly rich” information in its last act that the original planners might never have imagined.

Cassini will make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, sample icy ring particles and take ultra-close images of the planet’s rings and clouds.

“What we learn from these activities will help to improve our understanding of how giant planets – and families of planets everywhere – form and evolve,” NASA says on its website.

The final days of the Cassini mission may help with ongoing analysis of exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system – and two missions are planned to search for more of these alien worlds with launches in late 2017 or 2018.

In search of other worlds