Wonderful Engineering

This Tiny CubeSat On A Mission To Clean Space Debris

Back in 2016, a paint flake hit the International Space Station. A paint flake – and it caused the windows to chip. Similar to cleaning up the oceans, cleaning up space from Space Junk is an overwhelming job. A team of researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thinks that they have come up with a way that is not only cheap and effective but also tiny. Say hello to OSCaR – a small cube satellite that is capable of hunting down and de-orbiting space junk.

Space Junk is becoming a major problem that needs to be tackled effectively and quickly before it gets out of our hand. As per the European Space Agency (ESA), more than 129 million pieces of debris in space exist as of now. These pieces are moving at space-paced velocity, and even the smallest object can cause severe damage to crewed space stations, rockets, and satellites upon impact.

Kurt Anderson, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, said, ‘There’s a real problem. The amount of observed debris is increasing faster now than the rate that we’re actually putting more objects into space. This is an indication that the earliest stages of The Kessler Syndrome may be upon us.’

For those of you who are not familiar with Kessler Syndrome, it is a theory that was put forward by NASA scientists Donald Kessler back in 1978. He suggested that if Space Junk reaches a large enough concentration, it will create a flood of collisions that will end up creating even more debris. Kessler said that this would continue happening up until the areas of space become impenetrable and unusable on account of the saturation of fast-moving space junk. Anderson and his team have created OSCaR to combat space debris and to avoid this scenario.

OSCaR has been created from three CubeSat satellites. The tiny almost-autonomous space hunter will orbit our planet and track down space junk. It will make use of the featured gun barrels, nets, and tethers for capturing the space junk. OSCaR is on a five-year mission, at the end of which it has been programmed to destroy itself and the captured garbage thus making sure that it doesn’t end up becoming a part of the space junk itself.

The research team is hopeful that the OSCaR can begin by capturing some of the 22,300 pieces of space junk that have been cataloged by the Space Debris database. The device will be making use of a combination of thermal, optical, and RADAR imaging, and will be able to find debris without relying on on-ground supervision.

Anderson said, ‘We tell OSCaR what to do, and then we have to trust it. That’s why this problem actually gets very hard because we are doing things that a big, expensive satellite would do, but in a CubeSat platform.’ He further said, ‘There’s an informal agreement that’s been in place for a few years that people who put space objects up there should be practicing good citizenship. We envision a day where we could send up an entire flock, or squadron, of OSCaRs to work jointly going after large collections of debris.’