Title:  Orbital Debris Cleanup and Reuse



Source & Date

Al Globus, San Jose State University Research Foundation, NASA Ames Research Center  

aglobus@mail.arc.nasa.gov   15 August 2010




There are large quantities of human-created debris in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and MEO (Medium Earth Orbit).  This debris field has destroyed at least one functioning satellite and forces frequent evasive maneuvers by the International Space Station and other satellites.  Collisions between existing debris particles will increase the total number of particles faster than they will be removed by atmospheric drag.  In other words, there is a slow-motion chain reaction in progress degrading our ability to use many earth orbits.


The debris field includes thousands of intact satellites and upper stages with significant mass, as well as smaller particles.  Collisions between the large items is a major hazard as collisions between them generates many thousands of smaller particles, as occurred in the recent destruction of an Iridium satellite by an abandoned Soviet-era upper stage.  




The TP has the following assignment: 

1)   Define a plausible robust system controlling the orbit of the large debris items. 

2)         Perform a trade study comparing deorbiting these particles vs. using them for orbital hotel construction, particularly radiation shielding.

3)         Determine the conditions necessary for profitable business plans for both options.

4)         Determine if current law allows such operations or, if not, propose appropriate modifications.

5)         Determine the consequences of failing to clean up orbital debris.



Expected level of involvement by department area


                              Business                         Life                             Policy                       Physical                    Satellite                    Systems                      Space

                        Management              Science                       & Law                       Science               Applications          Engineering             & Society

Major                    X                                      X                                      X                                      X                                      X                                      X                                      X



Brief explanation of expected involvement by department area

 Space Business & Management:    There are some conditions that could make these activities profitable, but itŐs not clear what these are. The TP is intended to illuminate them.                               

 Space Life Sciences:                                         To what degree can the mass of the debris enhance the safety of orbital hotels when used as shielding or higher-value components.                                             

 Space Policy & Law:                                          Current law is almost certainly not conducive to debris cleanup as the launching country is responsible and, thus, would need to give permission for cleanup.

 Space Physical Sciences:                         Efficient collection of large orbital debris is a significant orbital change problem.     

 Satellite Applications:                                       This is a satellite application.            

 Space Systems Engineering:                Defining the two systems requires determining mechanism for orbital changes, fleet size, time horizons and so forth.  In the orbital hotel case, use of debris is potentially a system driver.

 Space & Society:                                                     The utility of the space environment is being degraded by debris, and this degradation is certain to continue without action.  The potential loss of use for some orbits may have a significant societal impact, particularly with regard to earth-monitoring satellites.         




Window of Opportunity

This proposed TP is viable for the foreseeable future.




This proposed TP is likely to enjoy broad support aerospace professionals for whom the space environment is critical as well as from the general public with an interest in space tourism.