back to article Swiss space plane to launch robotic orbital debris destroyer

Switzerland, a nation renowned for its fondness for tidiness and order, could become a key force in cleaning up the potentially deadly problem of space junk in Earth's orbit. Last year, the Swiss Space Center at the University of Lausanne announced the planned launch of CleanSpace One, a robotic satellite designed to grab …


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  1. DJO Silver badge

    Nice idea but is it the best way?

    I would have thought a better way to deorbit the junk would be to use essentially a space based drone launched and controlled from the ISS which could return home after either pushing or mounting a small engine on the rogue debris. With that all that has to lifted into orbit is the fuel and the occasional replacement part.

    1. Wanda Lust

      Re: Nice idea but is it the best way?

      Does really matter whether it's the best way, the story ties in nicely with the imminent movie release starring Sandra Bullock.

  2. DryBones

    What they need...

    A cleaner that's a got some manipulators, a maneuvering system with ion and hypergol for scooting around orbit, some good cameras, and as many solid propellant affix-and-fire kick motors as they can pack into a magazine system. Approach junk, affix motor(s), orient as needed, back off, and initiate. Bye-bye, change orbit to the next dead hulk.

    1. Trollslayer

      Re: What they need...

      And make it a pay per satellite game...

    2. Tomato42

      Re: What they need...

      locating the centre of mass is difficult, if you have a grappling hook you can compensate in real time, with affixed engines you have only one chance and a big probability you'll get it catastrophically wrong

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: What they need...

        with affixed engines you have only one chance and a big probability you'll get it catastrophically wrong

        Four small variable thrust engines angled away from each other, some gyroscopes and some simple guidance electronics and the odds of getting wrong are vastly reduced. Anyway they don't need to impart a huge velocity to de-orbit, if anything they want to slow the buggers down and let them drop under gravity. The fun bit of course is making sure you don't hit anything else on the way down.

        One engine or constant thrust and you are dead right, the thing would almost certainly cause more problems than it solved.

  3. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    The Swiss contribution to de-orbiting satellites..

    ... a vast mass of fondue orbiting the other way....

  4. Timbo

    It's not that simple, as one assumes that any "large-ish" piece of space junk, must be guided down, just in case it doesn't all burn up and some bits come through the atmosphere and land on somebody's head/car/building/nuclear power station etc.

    So, it's not really a case of attaching some cheap rocket and keep one's fingers crossed that it all burns up.

    Personally, I'd have thought it might be an idea to push the stuff to the moon - it could then just sit there until such time as we have the technology and the lunar outposts to recycle the stuff and use it for other space ventures - after all, all this satellite material cost a fortune to put up into space in the first, much better to keep it in a re-usable form.

    This also is simple as little guidance is required, it's not going to hit anyone/anything and the Earth's atmosphere won't have to absorb any of the nasties that burn up on re-entry.

    1. CCCP

      Your trolling... broken.

      Or you wondered off the internets by mistake.

      Either way, go in this direction ---------------------->

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Actually just about everything you said is wrong.

      It is as simple as burning it up in the atmosphere, if you choose the correct re-entry profile. Most satellites are flimsy and lightweight, very few have heavy solid chunks of metal in them.

      The satellites in question are not in deepspace, they are in orbit. this means that they are still effected by the Earth's gravity. You cannot just point at the moon and go that way. You have to climb all the way up to that orbit. Go look at how much bigger the Saturn moon rockets were over other low earth orbit rockets. this is for the extra climb required to get to moon orbit. taking junk to the moon does not work!

      Very few satellites have escaped the Earth's gravity, and these are not the problem, it's the LEO sats that are clogging 'space'.

  5. E 2

    Stealthy attempt to fill the sky with satellite killers!

    1. Notas Badoff

      That is the consideration that requires the Swiss to first try on their own satellite only. Touching any other country's satellite would ignite politics on high thrust. No one has made any determination/treaty yet on the general legality of any of this.

      So the Chinese add 50% more orbiting bits by blowing up their own defunct satellite as an example of deorbiting technology. (What other purpose could they have been demonstrating?) The Russians are not going to be happy at anyone presenting them a bill for services rendered for pre-CIS trash, such as the myriads of sodium globules from exploded reactors. And the US is going to plead money problems and say they'll tackle it sometime after Social Security.

    2. Don Jefe

      $10M for an orbital Roomba? That's expensive.

      $10M for an orbital "Democracy Platform"? That's a bargain.

  6. David Schlinkert

    Sling-shotting with a tether

    If the de-orbiter was in two parts connected by a tether, by playing out the tether as the de-orbiter uses its thruster to spin the pair, it would be possible to release the debris in the opposite direction of the orbit. Done properly, the debris would then be moving slowly enough to re-enter an burn. The tether could be wound in and the de-orbiter could move on to the next item.

  7. Captain DaFt

    The slow approach, good housekeeping

    Most of the junk in orbit now is slowly de-orbiting all on its own, and some is slowly slingshotting itself out.

    A stable orbit is hard to achieve, it's all going away eventually.

    The best bet is best practices, don't put stuff up without a plan for safe disposal, and carefully monitor what's already up there and co-ordinate with other agencies to make sure collisions are minimized.

    It'll be three to four hundred years to clear with this approach, but it beats just flinging stuff up and shrugging, "We'll figure out how to sweep up later."

    Of course, while we're waiting, it doesn't hurt to explore how to clean up the mess we've already made.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

      You are correct. A bit of patience, prudence and better waste management for future flights and the problem largely solves itself.

      However I'm afraid you'd make a poor politician. Your two choices should have been:

      a) "We'll figure out how to sweep it up later/We have faith that the next generation of leaders will find a solution to see our great nation through these and other complex challenges".


      b) PANIC: "The liberal scientific community has constructed a deadly minefield of taxpayer waste in the heavens above us. Right Now exotic metals and radioactive particles are plummeting towards our homes, businesses and churches. In their arrogant quest to disprove God the scientific community has placed us all in jeapordy. We cannot expect the same people who placed us in such peril to find a solution. We must strike preemptively with our greatest warriors and most powerful weapons. Blast their ungodly creations from the sky before they destroy us"!

      You've got to be seen as laying the groundwork for the future or proactively doing something, preferably something explodey, for the sake of the visuals you see. To allow physics and/or nature to do what it's going to do means you are weak (or something).

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

      Of course, that could be measured in decades or more.

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

        It would certainly take quite a while but why does that matter? There's no reason to be proactive about it. The situation hasn't gotten that far. If we act now to stop making more there's no reason to interfere with gravity, just let it do its thing.This is one of the rather rare messes we've made that we can mitigate by just doing nothing.

        If we don't stop leaving new shit up there them yes it will definitely be a big problem one day. A really big problem. The costs of building in systems to bring down defunct equipment is minimal compared to the costs and risks of chasing it down. Something like this is would be great to have if something failed and needed to be brought down safely. But using it as a primary means of litter management just doesn't make sense either technologically or financially.

    3. GrantB

      Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

      It will go away eventually, so you are right in that anything new should be planned to automatically de-orbit along with any rocket stages or other components.

      Problems is that will still be exceptions - the scary one being the possibility of a collision with something big leading to a cascading shower of debris. This is pretty much what the Chinese achieved with their anti-sat test. Doesn't have to be all man-made either - there have been small Near Earth Asteroids that could have taken out some big satellites or space stations. Either could make a mess that force a clean up or face not putting anything into orbit for some time.

      The other is that getting objects into space is still hard and not production line boring yet. That means things go wrong and satellites can still be put into orbit DOA or with unexpected orbital paths. That and simple accidents like dropped bolts and tools off the space station, or other parts simply breaking off/exploding.

      So any investigation into accelerating the decay of space junk is reasonable, but still seems like a big job simply because space is big (even LEO to geo-stationary space) and changing orbits from one bit of junk to another will require huge changes in velocity. A reusable de-orbiter with Ion or chemical rocket thrusters, will takes ages to move from one object to another. Still careful routing and using the objects mass to help change orbit, might be possible over time to take down some of the largest chunks.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

      "It'll be three to four hundred years to clear with this approach,"

      That's the very slow approach and BTW the ISS is getting hit by this stuff.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The slow approach, good housekeeping

      The best bet is best practices, don't put stuff up without a plan for safe disposal.....

      "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? 'That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun."

  8. Robert Forsyth


    The cleaner could push the debris down (mechanically) and be pushed up itself. Solar energy could be collected and used to lower the debris and raise the cleaner to compensate for atmospheric drag.

    1. Robert Helpmann??

      Re: Reaction

      The cleaner could push the debris down (mechanically) and be pushed up itself.

      Not a bad idea. In fact, if the debris were used as reaction mass, it could be propelled almost anywhere as long as it did not stay in orbit and did not hit a functioning satellite on its way elsewhere.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was thinking exactly the same thing. Most satellites can generate power indefinitely, but their lifespan is limited by the amount of propellant they can carry to offset the very slight drag they experience which eventually slows them to the point of dropping out of orbit.

    If you're dealing with space junk, then you have a constant supply of the mass you need to chuck down (or back) to make you go up (or forward faster).

  10. Anonymous Coward

    a ?worthwhile? international agreement?

    How about all new satellites contain means for de-orbiting, either upwards or downwards.

  11. Gronk

    Straker spent quite a bit of time trying to get funding from the IAC to remove space junk.

    1. hplasm


      Things hide among it...

  12. dorsetknob

    Its not the pieces of junk big enough to attach a de orbiting booster that they need to worry about its the Tiny stuff whizzing around at orbital speed

    the orbiting shards of previous collisions the nuts and bolts and similar sized objects that are the collision risk to existing satellites / spacecraft and future ones

    1. Kharkov

      Which is worse?

      There are reasonably large (unwanted) things in orbit and yes, something to get rid of them is worth having. However, the large bits have known orbits and they're not really a surprise to anyone paying attention.

      The much bigger risk is all the small stuff (nuts & bolts etc) in orbits that aren't clearly known or plotted into the future which makes them a much greater danger. While this first step into debris-cleanup is welcome, it should only be considered a first step.

      There's also the question of economics. That 10 million dollar figure? That's just for the deorbiter satellite, right? What's the development cost for SOAR (and projected mass figures, please)?

      If I pull out some figures (out of thin air, yes) that look & 'feel' right to me, it looks like they're developing a system that can put... up to 1,500kg into LEO? Probably a bit less. Fine, no problem there but the cost of modifying the A300? Probably not that much. Developing/building/testing the mini-shuttle? That's where most (60%) of your development money will go and it'll probably be expensive. Developing/building/testing the (probably not-reusable) 3rd stage will also be expensive.

      It's noble to want to clean up LEO but if it's too expensive, it won't get done...

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      "its the Tiny stuff whizzing around at orbital speed"

      It's all orbiting at "orbital" speed.

      That's why it's still in orbit.

      However the relative velocity can still be enough to do serious damage, especially if that orbit was retrograde.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Are you sure that so called Swiss satellite isn't a Borg cube?

  14. MajorTom

    Two thoughts

    If there's a risk of colliding the cleaner sat with the target, then just setup the approach direction so this collision would at least slow down the target...and contribute to its de-orbiting.

    Alternative technology idea for the Swiss: orbit a large, yellow rectangular bit of material to get in the way of orbiting satellite targets. The target sat would hit the material and slow down, leaving a hole in the material. After a while it would resemble...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Can't we just move the Earth 20,000 mile that-a-way, leaving the junk behind?

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Put up a satellite (on a new space plane) to bring down a satellite

    Does anyone see a few problems with this?

  17. Mark76

    So... Even the Swiss have a more ambitious space program than us?

    Why doesn't that surprise me?

    1. Kharkov

      Re: So... Even the Swiss have a more ambitious space program than us?

      Errr... Skylon?

      Check out Reaction Engines Ltd (google it) or the Skylon (spaceplane) at wikipedia.

      Game changer in the making, 7 years away and counting...

  18. Doug Bostrom

    Stay up on the latest debris

    It's all covered in "Orbital Debris Quarterly."

    A seriously bad problem, another "WTF were they thinking" legacy for our descendants.

  19. Crisp

    This looks like an ok solution for large objects

    But what about all those nut and bolt sized chunks of metal whizzing around?

    I'd have thought it would be easier to dodge a large object coming your way than it would be to avoid a shotgun pellet like smattering of metal.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: This looks like an ok solution for large objects

      "I'd have thought it would be easier to dodge a large object coming your way than it would be to avoid a shotgun pellet like smattering of metal."


      NASA (IIRC) tracks everything in LEO > 10cm across. But when even fragments of paint can do serious damage that's still way too big.

      That said a UV laser could charge the surface of such small objects by photo ionizing them. From there Fleming's rule should come into play for everything not in a polar orbit. Such items then either slow down, increasing the chances of hitting air molecules and burning up or speed up, go to a higher orbit and possibly hit another piece of debris, making a bigger piece to track.

  20. Wiltshire

    You expect me to talk?

    Perfect scenario for a new James Bond plot.

    Bond foils dastardly villian's attempt to destroy all satellites and hold the world and it's dog to ransom.

    Or have we had that already?

    Where's the white cat?

  21. Adam Azarchs

    The best long-term solution

    In the long term, it's been proposed that the best solution would be to have people who launch into orbit post a bond for $X which they get back if and when their satellite deorbits successfully. It's far cheaper to reserve a small amount of extra fuel for a final deorbit maneuver than it is to send up a second rocket to do it for you, but right now there's little incentive to do that. If you make $X be the amount it costs to remove space junk by other means, then that encourages "insurance companies" to develop cheaper methods to deorbit misbehaving satellites.

    Of course, that doesn't help for all the junk that's already up there. That is what we call a Hard Problem.

  22. John F***ing Stepp

    Must be a cheaper way to do this.

    De-orbiting from LEO seems pretty easy, and as of now LEO is the problem area.

    (Where all our manned stuff sits.)

    Attach one of those 60-70s era mylar balloons to the sucker and it will come down on its own within 12 months (air drag); even earlier if it is hit with a solar flare.

    I am just thinking of cheap; more fun would be ground based ablative laser systems perhaps controlled by a co-operative system of video gamers and background distributive processing.


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