Space force

Space Force supports 125 teams to clear orbital debris

The US Space Force is turning to private companies for help clearing orbital debris that surrounds our planet, putting our spacecraft and astronauts at risk.

The challenge: The Earth is surrounded by millions of orbital debris. Also known as “space junk”, these are now useless objects that humans have sent into space but never removed, ranging from entire missing satellites to flecks of paint from rockets.

Because orbital debris travels nearly 10 times faster than a bullet, something as small as a screw could fly through an operational spacecraft, potentially causing the loss of a satellite or, worse, the life of an astronaut.

The Earth is surrounded by millions of useless human objects sent into space but never removed.

First orbital: In an attempt to avoid such scenarios, SpaceWERX, the innovation arm of the US Space Force, launched Orbital Prime – a program to fund the development of private company ideas for orbital debris mitigation technology – in November 2021.

“Our vision in this partnership is to aggressively explore these capabilities with you today in hopes that we and others can purchase them as a service in the future,” said David D. Thompson, Vice Chief of Space Operations for the Space Force. program.

Even a tiny piece of orbital debris could pass through an operational spacecraft.

What’s new? SpaceWERX has now selected 125 teams, from commercial, academic and nonprofit groups, to receive $250,000 to further develop their designs during Phase 1 of the program.

Brian Holt, co-leader of Orbital Prime, told SpaceNews that the groups are a mix of startups and traditional defense companies spread across 27 states, and while he didn’t specify how many proposals received by the program, he noted that the response exceeded expectations.

Look forward: Each team chosen for the Orbital Prime program will now have approximately five months to work on their design before having to present a product or study to SpaceWERX.

Later in 2022, selected teams will have the opportunity to obtain up to $1.5 million to develop prototypes of their technology in Phase 2 of the program. In two to four years, SpaceWERX hopes to send one or more of these new technologies into space for demonstration.

The big picture: While it’s too early to tell what sorts of orbital debris management technologies will emerge from the Space Force program, we’ve already seen several potentially viable options demonstrated in space.

SpaceWERX hopes to send one or more of these new technologies into space for demonstration within 2-4 years.

In February 2022, China’s space agency used a space tug to drag a defunct satellite into a “graveyard orbit” where it is unlikely to collide with an active spacecraft. In 2018, the UK’s Surrey Space Center conducted a demonstration that used a net to catch a piece of simulated orbital debris (the one it released).

Other groups have come up with ideas for reusing space junk in laboratories for astronauts or as fuel for small satellites. Although these have not yet been demonstrated in space, they are particularly enticing solutions because they would allow us not only to get rid of dangerous orbital debris, but also to gain something useful in the process.

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