Canadian defence department seeks scientists to tackle orbiting space junk
The Canadian government has opened a tender for scientists and researchers to come up with innovative ways to tackle the problem of space junk.
The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces are looking for “viable and cost-effective solutions for tracking and de-orbiting space debris in order to reduce the collision threat for orbiting space systems.”
As of January 2019 there were 128 million tiny pieces of space debris in orbit between one millimetre to one centimetre in size, according to the European Space Agency. This does not include 900,000 objects sized from one cm to 10 centimetres and 34,000 pieces of junk larger that 10 centimetres,
Flying space garbage could be lethal to astronauts and catastrophic to orbiting satellites or other space infrastructure.
“The stuff that’s floating in orbit is moving at five to seven kilometres a second,”said Paul Delaney, professor of astronomy and physics at York University.
“If they’re travelling parallel with each other it’s not a big issue, but we’ve got orbits that are what we call equatorial and polar so there is the possibility for these ‘t-boning’ collisions.
“And if you’re t-boning with a particle moving seven kilometres a second it’s going to do an awful lot of damage.”
Techniques involving harpooning or using nets have already been tried in space.
“The DND is effectively doing a huge brainstorming exercise to see if they can come up with a better way than they’ve already tried because what we’ve tried so far hasn’t worked well,” Delaney told CTV’s Your Morning.
“It’s difficult because of the volume and the size of the particles in question.
“It’s expensive, which means every single space agency hasn’t got the funding to expand to try and solve the problem.”
Existing prototypes lack important capabilities and have proven ineffective, the DND said in the tender document.
“While ‘space debris’ technically includes asteroids, comets and meteoroids, this challenge refers specifically to orbit debris, space junk, space waste, space trash, space litter or space garbage, as well as fragments from their disintegration and collisions,” the DND wrote.
Space surveillance systems track about 22,300 debris objects in the Earth’s orbits, totaling more than 8,400 tonnes, which includes 1,950 operational satellites, the DND wrote.
The DND/CAF is looking for solutions for ”reliable and robust solutions for tracking space debris below the 10cm diameter size” and “concepts, designs or prototypes for deorbiting multiple pieces of debris of any size.”
“We all collectively have not been good stewards, so the idea of reduse, reuse, recycle hasn’t been applied to the space environment at all,” Delaney said.
The International Space Station goes through collision avoidance manouevres about monthly, he said.
“The chances of the impact actually occurring are really really small,” Delaney added.
“But when they get within a threshold, which is about 10 to 15 kilometres, then the ISS has to do an avoidance manouevre.”
Delaney also highlighted the risk to the burgeoning space tourism industry, which could see space hotels in Earth’s orbit in the near future.
“Would you get on a plane if you knew you only had a 99 out a hundred chance of getting off at the far end?” Delaney asked.
The deadline for proposals is August 22.