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This article was contributed by Jason Derenick, CTO of Exyn Technologies
No matter the technologies gained, one thing is certain; humans leave a legacy wherever they go. It’s no more evident than in the last frontier — space — where debris hasn’t left gravity’s pull and ever-so-slowly circles around Earth’s orbit. The clutter that’s growing around Earth is becoming an issue that needs containment before technology, known as “mega constellations,” joins the piles of discarded metal, paint, and screws.
According to an article in Mashable, containing debris and ridding space junk is becoming a problem that’s getting harder to solve. Russia recently tested a missile, set to “blow-up” an older satellite– having unexpected consequences. In Mashable’s recent piece, they shared, “The explosion of the around 4,850-pound satellite created a cloud of fragments that triggered an emergency response on the relatively nearby International Space Station: Astronauts awoke and hastily prepared to evacuate the threatened space outpost.”
Donald Kessler, a former NASA senior scientist, found over 40 years ago that the parts of satellites and rockets left behind in low-Earth orbit could make space travel too hazardous. Much like our growing epidemic of trash in our seas and on land, what we leave behind is affecting our day-to-day lives.
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In Scientific American magazine, Kessler cited, “It takes an Iridium-Cosmos-type collision to get everyone’s attention. That’s what it boils down to… And we’re overdue for something like that to happen.”
The swiftly-growing space debris issue
Britannica.com cites in 2021, “the United States Space Surveillance Network was tracking more than 15,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm (4 inches) across. It is estimated that there are about 200,000 pieces between 1 and 10 cm (0.4 and 4 inches) across and that there could be millions of pieces smaller than 1 cm.” From rocket launches to Amazon’s newest Project Kuiper, a mega constellation with over 3,000 satellites, humans must wrap their hands and minds around sending less into orbit and taking care of what’s already there.
Published in May 2021, a scientific report found that the addition of mega constellations, or a group of human-made satellites, could threaten both Earth’s orbit and atmosphere, not to mention “ground-based astronomy.” Calling for urgent action, the scientific article begs the question: Who’s job is it to clean up the scrap? And where does all the junk go?
Understanding odds and ends of space
Space junk removal hasn’t been an easy concept for scientists to wrap their heads around, and the process of removing debris hasn’t gone as well as expected. In fact, the solutions already proposed don’t make a dent in containing or eliminating the refuse—just above our heads. Just last March, ELSA-d launched into orbit to try and understand both the amount of garbage and create a solution for eliminating the mess. Created by a Japanese company, the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale Demonstration (ELSA-d) is seeking to magnetize the clutter, then destroy it by deorbiting in a swan-dive disintegrating together in an explosive crescendo.
ELSA-d isn’t the first solution proposed to address the problem of space’s ever-growing litter. NPR mentioned in 2019, “India blew apart one of its satellites orbiting Earth, creating hundreds of pieces of debris that threatened to collide with the International Space Station.” No matter the solution, it appears the International Space Station is always in the wake.
Autonomous robots meet robust 3D technology
While solutions like ELSA-d offer hope, they don’t give a direct view of what the globe is up against. Understanding the full scope of the clutter by mapping points of interest and creating a system of clean-up can allow for better results and far less risk. Utilizing the power of 3D technology and combining the mapping tool with a resilient system operable in the most inhospitable habitats will allow for proper planning to remove items close and very, very, far away.
In fact, autonomy is designed from the ground up to operate in areas where scientists need a resilient system that is not dependent on real-time communications connected to an offboard computer. Becoming ever-more important as junk continues to leave lower-Earth orbit and create spaceburgs- or monumental piles of garbage that add risk to space travel, clean-up crews need reliable tools to properly communicate what they’ve cleaned and what’s been left behind.
Space exploration has been steadily marching towards an autonomous future. Mercury through Apollo was human-driven, relying on exceptionally-competent pilots with years of training to make snap judgments to keep the mission safely on track. From the space shuttle to Rover and its grandchild robots, the next evolution of space technology will rely on communication-free, self-tasking autonomous robots that are as dependable as they are economical. With AI leading the way to better clean-up, space junk can be a memory of the past.
Jason Derenick is Chief Technology Officer at Exyn Technologies, Inc. Exyn is an extension of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania founded by robotics expert Professor Vijay Kumar.
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