• SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell said the Starship could collect other companies or agencies' dead rockets
  • The Starship's reusability will allow SpaceX to avoid contributing to the growing space junk problem
  • The ESA estimated that there are over 130 million pieces of anthropogenic space debris orbiting Earth

When it's not sending humans to the moon and Mars, SpaceX's Starship could be used to clean up space junk currently circling Earth.

During a "Time 100 Talks" interview with Time magazine, SpaceX president and CEO Gwynne Shotwell shared how their next-generation Starship system could help collect and remove from orbit some of the space debris floating around the planet that are now estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

"It's quite possible that we could leverage Starship to go to some of these dead rocket bodies — other people's rockets, of course — basically, go pick up some of this junk in outer space," Shotwell said.

SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk are determined to make their rocket-spaceship system "totally reusable" to avoid contributing to the already massive amount of debris from past launches.

The Starship spacecraft will be launched into orbit via the Super Heavy giant rocket, which will then return to the planet for a vertical landing. The spaceship could then be used for many missions once it is launched, including sending astronauts back and forth Earth orbit and Mars. Super Heavy will only be required to help the Starship spacecraft escape Earth's gravity, but the spaceship will have no problem making trips from the moon or Mars.

"It's not going to be easy, but I do believe that Starship offers the possibility of going and doing that," Shotwell said of Starship's possible future cleanup role. "And I'm really excited about it."

Space debris is a growing problem, with the European Space Agency reporting that millions of anthropogenic objects are currently orbiting Earth. These include an estimated 34,000 orbital objects greater than 4 inches, over 900,000 pieces in the 0.4-inch to 4-inch range and 128 million shards between 0.04 inches and 0.4 inches wide.

This is one of the reasons why SpaceX has made it a priority to minimize its contribution to the orbital-debris problem.

With this goal in mind, one of the changes SpaceX implemented is the lowering of the operational altitude of its Starlink satellites — from 684 and 823 miles high to just an altitude of 340 miles, Space News reported. Moreover, SpaceX's standard procedure for Starlink satellites is to bring it out of orbit before it dies, thereby avoiding leaving any space junk behind.

"And, in fact, we inject into a lower altitude, so if, for whatever reason, right after launch they're not working well, they come back to Earth quickly," Shotwell told Time.