At first glance, this may seem like a fictional dream come true. Humanity actually launching an intelligent robot to clean up dangerous space debris. However, the real story is much less glorious and the robots don’t look anywhere near as cute.
Earth is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of pieces of random “space junk” that we have put into orbit since the beginning of the space age. Each of these pieces of junk is traveling at extremely fast speeds and pose a hazard to astronauts and spacecraft that are in orbit. At those speeds any sort of collision could result in disaster.
Codenamed “CleanSpace One” (See here ) , this satellite essentially looks like a box with a robotic arm attached to it and could be ready for launch in as little as five years. Once deployed, it will race into orbit and use its robotic arm to grab space junk and then hurl the space junk and itself back into the Earth’s atmosphere so that both it and the junk burn up upon re-entry. The test sizes of orbital objects that the robot will try to grab are about 1000 cubic centimeters(10cm by 10cm by 10cm) in size. Unfortunately unlike the animated Wall-E, this robot will not be able to cleanup vast amounts of objects but will itself be destroyed upon re-entering the atmosphere and thereby sacrificing itself for the sake of completing the mission.
The most challenging part of this project is the grabbing arm or mechanism. It has to fit pretty closely with the object that they are trying to grapple or else it won’t function as well. To combat this difficulty, scientists and engineers are drawing inspirations from grabbing claws of living organisms. Another challenge of this robotic cleanup device is that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. A robot that is built to grab a 1000 cubic centimeter object can only grab a 1000 cubic centimeter object so a variety of different sized and customized robots will have to be designed in order to truly clean up the junk that is floating in orbit. However, that fits right into Cleanspace One plans. The team that is working on this project intends to make and sell a whole suite of Robotic gadgets to space agencies and other customers who are increasingly having to take into consideration the vast amount of floating junk out there before launching their own satellite into space. With the lost-cost plan of these small janitor satellites and the fact that any collision between two major objects in space will likely cost millions of dollars in damages and repairs, there may actually be quite a large market for such robots.
So while we won’t get little cute robots that have feelings and emotions patrolling our space collecting hazardous junk for us, we will be one step closer to a cheap solution to make the space around us just a little safer for future exploration.