“Gravity” is the Hollywood example of a real problem many space agencies are trying to deal with. Space junk, dead satellites and other debris pose a threat to current and future missions and the European Space Agency has established the Clean Space Initiative and the e.Deorbit mission to help solve the trash problem.
According to the ESA, there are 17,000 bits of space junk floating around Earth. These objects can be the size of a coffee cup or larger but even a tiny object, such as a nut or bolt, can cause some serious damage. One such object is ESA’s Envisat satellite, which lost contact with the space agency in 2012, notes Wired. The satellite is not a danger in terms of setting off a catastrophic chain reaction of space debris collisions, but it is a pretty large piece of debris that’s floating around Earth.
The trash in space could result in a catastrophic event as seen in “Gravity,” where space debris destroys Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) spacecraft. Picking up the stray bits of garbage would be almost impossible, as would clearing out the larger objects, such as dead satellites or the upper stages of a rocket.
ESA will hold the e.Deorbit Symposium on May 6 to discuss different space-debris removal technologies and procedures. The mission itself will track objects in a polar orbit, in an altitude between 800 kilometers (497 miles) and 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).
Target debris will be monitored using imaging sensors and other technology to minimize risk and researchers are currently working on different ways to capture debris. Nets, grappling arms, hooks and harpoons are currently being discussed as part of the mission. Another concern for ESA is controlling the amount of spin, caused by an object tumbling in space, which could lead to the mission’s craft spinning out of control.
NASA is also monitoring space debris and tracks 500,000 pieces of space junk around Earth, be it natural or man-made. The space agency has also established guidelines for handling space debris and “debris-avoidance measures” that can be deployed to move spacecraft away from potential danger.