back to article Clean up orbit first, then we can think about space factories, says FCC

The US Federal Communications Commission is looking at how it can help kickstart manufacturing in space, but said orbital debris needs to be addressed first. In a meeting held August 5, the FCC voted unanimously (4-0) to open proceedings on in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) to examine what sort of …

  1. jmch Silver badge
    Boffin

    Big problem with limited solutions

    'Cleaning up the orbit' is all well and good to say, but how do you clear 100 million pieces of 1mm-size debris, not to mention however many more smaller ones?? Can't vacuum them up, catch them in nets, can't even locate them, and to catch them you have to match their speed even if you could find them (which, for the smaller ones, you anyway can't).

    My wacky idea is some sort of high-expansion quick-setting foam - spray it from a small can into a large blob and push it into a slow-ish orbit on the path you want to clear. The idea is that the relative speed of debris is small enough that it won't punch through but get trapped inside, and the slow-ish orbit means it will eventually de-orbit itself (or the large size means it can be externally manipulated). That sort of assumes that most objects are orbiting in the same direction (which is mostly the case for parent satellites so should mostly be the same for debris).

    Of course, space is Huuuuge, even just the narrow shell of the useful orbital plane, but given that rocketeers can insert a satellite into a very precise orbital position, whose launch, trajectory etc are probably known years in advance, it should be possible to clear the path from some of the debris ahead of the satellite's launch

    1. Lars Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Big problem with limited solutions

      Yes, we catch fish not by being faster than them and often not knowing exactly where they are by tugging nets around or just laying them out, and it doesn't matter from which side the fish comes..

      So something logically similar will be needed.

      Not that I am all that convinced space manufacturing is much different to flying cars.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Big problem with limited solutions

        Sure but trying to capture all low orbit debris involves a volume far larger than all the oceans on Earth. And trying to capture all the fish and plankton 1mm in size or larger in all the oceans worldwide would be quite impossible on Earth despite the relative ease of working in the oceans rather than in space.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Big problem with limited solutions

          Agreed, it's a massive and almost certainly insurmountable problem to clear it all. But unlike the chaotic flows of the oceans, orbital debris is much more predictable in many cases.

          1. Mike 137 Silver badge

            Re: Big problem with limited solutions

            <sarc>The only realistic solution is to move to another planet and f**k that one up too. That should buy us a bit more time anyway</sarc>.

            1. EnviableOne Silver badge

              Re: Big problem with limited solutions

              looking at the remnants, it appears this may have already happened on Venus, and once earth is finished with, mars will be next...

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: slowish orbit?

      Two magic numbers for orbits are apogee and perigee (maximum and minimum altitudes). Given those numbers you can work out the only possible velocity at each altitude between the two. To get something to de-orbit quickly, you need a low perigee (lowest point in orbit). If you want something to go slowly at perigee the only way to achieve that is to reduce the apogee.

      Give two objects the same apogee and perigee but start them at different points along the orbit then to a first approximation they will never collide. (In real life the orbits will diverge for many reasons like the Earth is not a perfect sphere and there might be a collision far in the future.)

      Objects in orbit collide when their orbits are different. One could be in a circular orbit (apogee=perigee) and the other in an elliptical orbit that crosses it. Another way to get a collision that is easy to describe is two satellites in a circular orbit at the same altitude, but one is equatorial and the other is polar. For these examples and for the vast majority of others the velocity at impact will be huge - several kilometres per second.

      Cleaning up space is really hard. Putting a vast number big things in orbit to catch a little debris is theoretically possible but would end most Earth based astronomy. By far the cheapest solution is to stop making a mess.

      1. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

        Re: slowish orbit?

        "By far the cheapest solution is to stop making a mess"

        True. But the human race as a whole still hasn't acted on that realisation - about 200 years late and counting...

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Big problem with limited solutions

      slow relative-moving sticky gunk is probably as good as any other idea.

      I was considering some kind of electrostatic field, and/or maybe an electron cloud. charged particles attract opposite and and repel like charge. Leveraging high static charges may allow some kind of 'sweeping' into some kind of 'dustpan'.

      Pretty easy to make an electron cloud, even with static electricity, but you need to keep your total electrical charge "neutral". But if it has ion propulsion you can do this while moving forward. Let's say an electron gun (giant tube TV type) on the nose, and positive ions out the propulsion end. It would help maintain a balanced charge that way. Those electrons in the cloud negatively charge everything in front of you. Then, a lightweight net towed behind (sticky, with a neutral charge) to collect the negatively charged particles (and conductive so it can remain neutral). Care would need to be taken to ensure engine exhaust did not interfere but it is also something that could (potentially) help for the really tiny stuff in orbit.

      .

      May need to have a way of un-dusting solar arrays though... I'm sure debris would be attracted to them.

    4. Spherical Cow

      Re: Big problem with limited solutions

      Small things in low orbit will get rid of themselves soon enough. Big things in high orbits are tracked. So if you want to know where to cast your net, the answer is somewhere in between.

  2. ComputerSays_noAbsolutelyNo Silver badge
    Coat

    Something for the Playlist?

    Planetes - an anime series devoted to space debries

    In the year 2075, mankind has reached a point where journeying between Earth, the moon and the space stations is part of daily life. However, the progression of technology in space has also resulted in the problem of the space debris, which can cause excessive and even catastrophic damage to spacecrafts and equipment. This is the story of Technora's Debris Collecting section, its EVA worker, Hachirota "Hachimaki" Hoshino, and the newcomer to the group, Ai Tanabe.

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0816398/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    -> I'll put my space suit on

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    WTF?

    "has the potential to [..] mitigate climate change"

    Mitigate climate change ?

    How exactly is setting fire to a gigantic, $100+ million firecracker to fling something in orbit going to help mitigate climate change ?

    Have we decided that space now replaced fairy dust ?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: "has the potential to [..] mitigate climate change"

      Depends what you burn in the hot end and how you created those combustibles in the first place. Not sure about mitigating climate change, but carbon neutral from the fuel point of view is possible with renewable energy used to produce hydrogen/LOX fuel. It may not be practical yet but, as per the thread subject line, it has the potential. There's still the issue of high altitude water vapour exhaust though, lasting for a few weeks per launch,

    2. jmch Silver badge

      Re: "has the potential to [..] mitigate climate change"

      I'm not sure if whoever proposed that is thinking on the lines of - if we can harvest material from asteroids and do some space refining and manufacturing, we can avoid having to do that work on Earth and then send the finished articles up (including saving all the energy requirements by harvesting solar energy in orbit). One thing that this type of analysis usually forgets is that cooling is a problem in space, and processes that require massive amounts of heat need to be completely re-thought (if they are indeed possible). In any case we are probably a century or two away from that capability.

      If we are talking about what I think we are, ie potentially sending up one giant rocket 'tanker' that can refuel other satellites and extend their life, that's an interesting idea (and probably workable in a couple of decades), but will do eff all for climate change

    3. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: How exactly is ... something in orbit going to help mitigate climate change ?

      First thing that came to mind was solar climate engineering. Think Monte Burns' sunshade over Springfield, but on a planetary scale.

    4. EnviableOne Silver badge

      Re: "has the potential to [..] mitigate climate change"

      if you can build a static platform in geostationary orbit, you can build a space elevator and do away with all that explosion and death, and nanotubes might just provide the required strength.

    5. YetAnotherXyzzy

      Re: "has the potential to [..] mitigate climate change"

      That non sequitur caught my eye as well. I presume it can be unpacked as "the politician overlords who appointed us expect us to use that phrase periodically, whether or not it is relevant, to display our tribal affiliation".

      Then there are the minions of the other tribe, who are expected to neither mention nor give thought to the environment at all, but that's another subject.

  4. Bitsminer Silver badge

    the 50.4-51.4GHz range

    is working to clear a path for satellites to operate in the 50.4-51.4GHz range

    That's just 1GHz wide. BFD.

    Modern optical and synthetic aperture radar satellites can generate gigabytes/s of data. You want at least a gigabyte/s or four to get the data in a timely manner.

    While all sorts of expensive tricks can push a 1GHz channel to 4 or 5 or 6 gigabits per second downlink speed, it's not enough.

    Show us some real bandwidth, please.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: the 50.4-51.4GHz range

      Optical. As much bandwidth as you want.

      Subject to a cloud-free location, of course.

      1. Mike 137 Silver badge

        Re: the 50.4-51.4GHz range

        "Optical. As much bandwidth as you want

        Only on the optical link (although there is even there an upper limit due to various real world effects). We still have to convert that stream of light signals into some conventional electronic form to process the data, and that's where the most serious bottleneck will probably occur.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "the FCC voted unanimously (4-0) to open proceedings on in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) "

    I hope they keep the minutes to their proceedings in files using properly indexed sequential access methods. Because that would only be fitting.

  6. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge
    Alien

    Why clean it?

    Where they see a problem, I see an opportunity - refined metals and electronic components already in orbit, ready for harvest. If one looks at it as tons of materials already in space vs materials that have to be boosted to space for a jillion dollars an ounce, then devising a means to capture materials is driven by the profit motive.

    Idea's free to anyone who wants it as I'm not interested in pursuing it.

  7. LoPath
    Mushroom

    Space Junk

    What we need is a space-based "laser" (using my Austin Powers air quotes) to push the debris back towards Earth.

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