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Want To Catch Orbiting Space-Junk? Give Space-Nets A Try

The European Space Agency announces 2021 plans to clear up Earth’s cluttered orbit using high-tech space-nets

"Netting a derelict satellite" image via ESA

Space, as it turns out, is not always the vast, expansive void we’re often lead to believe it is. Rather, space is full of junk–our junk, in fact–just floating around, and cluttering everything up. Dead satellites, spent booster rockets, and abandoned equipment encircle our planet by the thousands, slowly creating a tangled maze of metal through which their active-use, functional counterparts must navigate. As this image from NASA’s “Orbital Debris Program Office” shows, it’s a mess up there.

image via NASA's Orbita Debris Program Office

With an eye toward the growing problem of cosmic junk, scientists around the world have begun exploring ways to rein in the flotsam and jetsam clogging our low-orbital pathways. It’s a space-age problem for which the solution might just be a tool mankind has used for millennia: The fishing net.

The European Space Agency (that continent’s equivalent to NASA) announced this week that by 2021 they plan to begin field testing satellite-capturing space nets to ensnare dead satellites and other orbital debris. This follows a series of successful, zero gravity net tests done to scale aboard a “vomit comit” aircraft.

But, as the release posted to the ESA’s website cautions:

The best method of snagging an uncontrolled, tumbling satellite is still being decided. ESA’s Clean Space initiative to reduce the impact of the space industry on the terrestrial and orbital environments is overseeing studies that also include a robotic arm, a harpoon and an ion beam.

Netting, explains ESA engineer Kjetil Wormnes, has the advantage of being able to accommodate a wide variety of debris shapes and sizes. He does not, however, elaborate on what happens to a dead satellite once it's been been snagged. As io9 points out, Japan’s JAXA space agency has also been experimenting with magnetic space-nets to help clean up the planet’s low-orbit space-ways.

New wave weirdos DEVO, meanwhile, have been warning us about the dangers of space junk for decades.

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