Space junk is a huge problem, but this high-tech satellite net just might help

Experts hope to eliminate the debris before it becomes too risky to launch new satellites.

Image: The REMDEB satellite deployed in June from the International Space Station

The REMDEB satellite deployed in June from the International Space Station.NanoRacks, ISS and NASA

As some scientists try to clean up the world’s oceans and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, others are tackling the problem of pollution in space. Defunct satellites, spent rocket parts and thousands of other pieces of human-made debris have accumulated in orbit around Earth in recent decades — and the problem is getting worse.

Now a consortium of universities and aerospace companies has begun testing a suite of technologies that could address the growing problem of space junk. On Sept. 16, scientists with the consortium successfully tested a net designed to snag orbiting debris and drag it down into Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up harmlessly.

The consortium’s refrigerator-sized RemoveDebris satellite deployed the spring-loaded net and captured a tiny cubesat that had been released for the experiment. Footage of the test shows the web-like net shooting out and trapping the mock space debris.

Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre in England, said he was “very happy” with the test, adding that the net and the cubesat are expected to burn up in the atmosphere within a couple of months. The center leads the consortium, which also includes Airbus, ArianeGroup and other partners in Europe and South Africa.

In last week’s test, the RemoveDebris satellite released the net as it was deployed. But in a real space debris-grabbing mission, Aglietti said, the net would remain tethered to a “mothership” satellite, which would then reel it in and de-orbit it via some mechanism yet to be determined.

In February, Aglietti and his colleagues will use the satellite to test another debris-removal idea: a tethered harpoon that could latch onto space junk and remove it from orbit.

The RemoveDebris mission is focused on eliminating old satellites and other large debris — objects about the size of a bus and weighing a few tons — because they pose the biggest threat to the International Space Station and satellites in low-Earth orbit.

“If they collide with other things, they can explode and break into thousands of fragments,” Aglietti said of these objects. “Rather than trying to remove smaller bits, which would be technologically very challenging, we think the best thing is to remove large pieces — especially those in busy orbits.”

The U.S. Department of Defense tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth, including about 20,000 objects larger than a softball. As rocket launches continue and more debris is created, experts worry that we could reach a point where it’s too risky to launch new satellites.

Low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within 2,000 km of the Earth's surface, is the most concentrated area for orbital debris.
Low-Earth orbit, the region of space within 2,000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface, is the most concentrated area for orbital debris.NASA

“We’re at the tipping point,” said John Crassidis, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo, who is not involved with the RemoveDebris mission. “If we don’t do something, it’s not going to be that much longer before there’s so much space junk and the probability of a collision is so great that nobody is going to want to insure satellites anymore.”

Crassidis called the recent test “fabulous,” but added that the RemoveDebris scientists must eventually show they can control debris after it’s been captured without destabilizing the RemoveDebris satellite itself.

“If you have an object that is rotating, that is going to affect your own satellite,” he said. “So, if the net is tethered, you have this momentum transferred between the two objects, and that can cause issues with trying to keep your satellite stable.”

Aglietti said even if the technology works, the bigger challenge will be navigating the politics and finding the money to mount clean-up initiatives. The RemoveDebris satellite cost $15 million, he said, but a real mission designed to remove space junk would likely cost significantly more.

“Technologically, we can do these things, but the difficulty will be to find the necessary funding and the necessary world cooperation that we need for this,” Aglietti said. “I think honestly the organizational and administrative problems are the main challenges, and not the technical challenges.”

ISS Serves as Stepping-Stone to Deep Space Exploration

ISS Serves as Stepping-Stone to Deep Space Exploration

With manned missions to Mars on the horizon, NASA is leveraging the unique capabilities of the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct research into critical exploration technologies. 

At the recent International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, DC, Human Exploration and Operations Directorate Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier led a discussion about how the agency is using the ISS to explore and resolve technological barriers to crewed deep space missions.

“Station is really a one of a kind testbed,” he said. “It’s a catalyst for the commercial market. It’s an engine of discovery. And, more importantly, it’s a stepping-stone to exploration.”

To reduce risk to crew during long-duration deep space travel, the agency is conducting a spectrum of investigations into areas such as radiation, fire safety, health and human performance, and life support. The ISS is ideally situated to host these investigations because it offers a zero-gravity environment in which to test concepts that cannot be explored fully on Earth, yet it is relatively accessible so that work can be ongoing and progressive.

One area of focus is on the habitation systems that will be crucial to maintaining crew health during deep space missions. Robyn Gatens, Deputy Director, ISS Division at NASA Headquarters (HQ), is leading the system maturation team for the environmental control and life support systems and environmental monitoring systems that will be used in the Orion spacecraft. Gatens and her team are working on a range of systems, including life support, air, water, and waste management. Although these systems exist on the ISS today, they will need to evolve before they are adequate for long-duration missions.

A key challenge in developing the new systems is constraints related to size. Because Orion is significantly smaller than the space station, any systems on the spacecraft will have to be miniaturized in comparison to those used on the station.

A second issue is efficiency. The space station recycles slightly less than half of the oxygen from the existing air system. For the future exploration system, said Gatens, “[W]e want to get to at least 75% of what we call ‘air loop closure.’ Similarly, on the water system today we recover about 95% of the water. And that sounds like a lot, but that still carries a logistic penalty that we want to do better for future missions. So we’re trying to improve that to over 98%.”

The technology and materials used by deep space crew—even their clothing—will have to be extremely durable because replacements will not be available. “The thing that kind of keeps me up at night is thinking ahead to when we load up the deep space transport and we’re sending the crew off to Mars and we close the door—and whatever spares are inside is what they’ve got,” she said.

Reliability, she added, may be the greatest challenge. “The simpler we can make it, the less complex we can make it, then the more reliable it is.”

Radiation monitoring and shielding as well as fire safety are other critical areas of investigation on the space station. Thanks to a radiation monitor on the Curiosity rover, NASA knows that the radiation environment on Mars is surprisingly similar to that of the ISS. The greater concern is the radiation exposure crew will face in getting to the red planet.

“The big problem is the transit phase, where you have no shielding other than what’s in your spacecraft,” said Gerstenmaier. To monitor radiation levels in the Orion spacecraft, the agency has created sensors the size of a thumbnail. Developing sufficient radiation shielding within the spacecraft, however, is still underway and will be essential to protecting crew health.

Other means of supporting astronauts’ well-being are being investigated on station. Experience on the ISS has confirmed that exercise is a key component in maintaining crew health in low gravity environments. Starting in 2020, NASA will test the Advanced Twin Lifting and Aerobics System (ATLAS), a compact combination weight lifting and rowing machine. To fit into Orion, ATLAS will weigh a mere 200 pounds compared with the four thousand pounds of exercise equipment currently on the ISS.

Significant psychological as well as physical stressors await crew during long-duration missions, including the challenge of living in a confined space in a hostile environment with just a few other people for up to three years at a time. There will be a 20-minute lag in communications between the spacecraft and Earth, making it difficult for astronauts to obtain support from the ground in an emergency situation, and no opportunity to send a crew member home should they become ill.

“As soon as you burn for Mars, you’re going to Mars. You’re not going to have resupply. You’re not going to be turning around and dropping somebody off. So you have to take care of people while you’re there,” said NASA Human Research Program (HRP) Director William Paloski.

The HRP has been working with the ISS to develop a series of one-year missions that will involve 10 crew by 2024. “The first year-in-space study was quite a success. Now that we know how to do it, we need to go and get a big enough “n” that has some meaningful data [so we] know what to expect in the breadth of the astronaut corps,” said Paloski.

HRP is also setting up a number of isolation facilities on the ground so that future crew can prepare themselves for the experience of a two- to three-year trip with only a few companions. They’ve established a short-duration isolation facility at Johnson Space Center (JSC) and will be doing four-month, eight-month, and twelve-month stays with multi-national crews at a facility in Russia as well as winter missions in Antarctica.

One of the many challenges for the agency in developing systems to support manned missions beyond LEO is the need to accommodate improvements in technologies as they become available. To address this, said Gerstenmaier, “I think the thing that’s really important is we keep an architecture and a plan that’s open enough that as new technology comes on, we can insert it relatively quickly.”

Considering the work ahead in preparing to send humans to Mars, he said, “When I look at the engineering challenge, it is monumental. But it’s exactly what we ought to be doing. And the first step in that is really station.”

The ISS Is Getting Its First African-American Crew Member in 2018

  • In March 2018, Jeanette Epps will join Expedition 56 as a flight engineer, making her the first African-American crew member aboard the International Space Station.
  • The result of more than a dozen countries collaborating, the ISS is arguably the best example of what can be achieved when nations work together.


The International Space Station (ISS) may be an impressive technological marvel, but it’s also tangible proof of what humans can accomplish when we set aside political, religious, gender, or racial differences and focus on science. Built by Russia and funded by the United States, the $100 billion space station is the result of more than a dozen countries working together.

A remarkable amount of effort went into the successful creation of the ISS, which has now been in operation for more than 16 years. It currently orbits Earth at an altitude of 354 kilometers (220 miles), traveling at 28,163 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour). The space station orbits our planet every 90 minutes, and an acre of solar panels keep the outpost running.

Right now, the ISS is home to several crew members from various nations, all of whom are focused on learning about how humans can live and work in space. It is arguably the most visible example of international cooperation and everything that can be achieved when nations collaborate.


Soon, a new addition to an ISS expedition crew will make history aboard the space station. When Jeanette Epps joins Expedition 56 in March 2018 as a flight engineer, she will become the first African-American to join the ISS as a crew member.


Epps holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland and served as a fellow in NASA’s Graduate Student Researchers Project, an initiative that hopes to increase engagement amongst students who want to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Epps shared her thoughts on joining the ISS:

There have been three African-Americans who have visited ISS, but they haven’t done the long-duration mission that I am undertaking. I’ll be the one spending the longest time on the ISS. As a steward, I want to do well with this honor. I want to make sure that young people know that this didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of work involved, and a lot of commitment and consistency. It is a daunting task to take on.

While Epps will be the first African-American to board the ISS for a long-term expedition, numerous African-American women have lent their expertise to the success of NASA. As far back as the 1950s, African-American women were contributing to humanity’s mission to explore the unknown, and soon, Epps will be able to add her name to the list of people breaking new ground in space exploration.

A New Theory on the Mysterious Condition Causing Astronauts to Lose Their Vision

But new research presented this week provides a partial answer to what’s causing this condition: pressurized spinal fluid. Noam Alperin, a researcher at the University of Miami’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, presented findings from research he and his peers conducted on 16 astronauts, measuring the volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their heads before and after spaceflight. CSF floats around the brain and spine, cushioning it and protecting your brain as you move, such as when you stand up after lying down.

Alperin and his team found that astronauts who had been in space for extended trips (about six months) had much higher build up of CSF in the socket around the eye than astronauts who had only gone on short stints (about two weeks). They also designed a new imaging technique to measure exactly how “flat” the astronauts eyeballs had become after extended periods in space.

The idea is that, without the assistance of gravity, the fluid isn’t pulled down and evenly distributed, allowing it to pool in the eye cavity and build up pressure, which slowly starts to warp the eye and cause the vision damage, called visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome (VIIP). It’s likely some people are more predisposed to this than others, perhaps due to the shape of their skulls, which would explain why some astronauts have not experienced VIIP. But Alperin said his findings suggest anybody could get VIIP if they’re in space for a long enough period of time.

“We saw structural changes in the eye globe only in the long-duration group,” Alperin told me over the phone. “And these changes were associated with increased volumes of the CSF. Our conclusion was that the CSF was playing a major role in the formation of the problem.”

The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Alperin told me the manuscript was recently accepted and will be published shortly. And these reported findings align with what scientists already suspected about the condition, according to Scott M. Smith, the manager of NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, who’s been studying the vision loss issue for the last six years.

“I think this fits very well within what others seem to be thinking at the moment,” Smith told me.

Many astronauts—though, importantly, not all—have experienced this unexplained reduction in eyesight after spending months on the International Space Station, some dropping from perfect 20/20 vision to 20/100 in just six months. Researchers have been gravely concerned about this effect. With plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, a mission that would require nine months of space flight one way, we don’t really want to risk all of our astronauts going blind in the process.

“NASA ranks human health risks and the two top risks are radiation and vision issues,” Smith said. “Is it number one or two? Some people would say it’s number one, because we don’t really know what the long-term implications are.”

But the better we understand how VIIP occurs, the more likely we are to be able to create a solution. Smith’s team is currently conducting a clinical trial to investigate whether polycystic ovarian syndrome—which, despite its name, may indeed occur in men—could have similar effects on vision. This research could help explain who is more likely to experience VIIP, as research like Alperin’s explores the physical functions of the condition.

What a solution to the condition will look like depends what else we learn: it could be a medication, or a mechanical device to help redistribute fluid, or something else entirely. But each piece to the puzzle helps us get one step closer to sending humans to Mars, and not blinding them in the process.

New Space Hotel is being set up adjacent to ISS .

ISS is set to welcome its first additional module since 2011, which unlike the rest of the station, built from hulking great aluminium cans and is inflatable.


The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), developed by Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, Nevada, will be carried to orbit folded neatly inside a SpaceX cargo capsule. Made from soft, foldable fabric, it will inflate in orbit, allowing modules to launch on compact spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, rather than requiring the heavy-lifting space shuttle that was responsible for much of the ISS’s construction. BEAM is set to blast off this Friday from Cape Canaveral in Florida as part of SpaceX’s latest cargo run to the ISS.

“When that astronaut steps inside, it will be a historic moment,” says Bigelow’s Mike Gold. “It will be one small step for that astronaut, but one giant leap for Bigelow Aerospace and expandable technology.”

The initial testing period is two years, during which Bigelow and NASA will confirm if it is able to resist the potentially damaging micrometeoroids that occasionally hit the ISS, along with maintaining the correct temperature and radiation resistance. Similar smaller, standalone modules were launched back in 2006 and 2007, but this will be the first to be attached to the ISS.

“Most of the time the module will be closed, but the crew will go in a handful of times to collect data and take a look,” says Joel Montalbano, deputy ISS manager at NASA. There are no windows, but other than some monitoring equipment BEAM will be empty, potentially giving the crew a break from the busy station. “It will feel roomy.”


This could be a research destination for private customers delivered by the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, or a “space hotel” for tourists.

What do ISS astronauts do with their dirty laundry?

Without washer and dryer, all International Space Station residents throw out their clothes after just a few weeks of use.


It’s may sound very celeb-like, but astronauts aboard the ISS have no other choice: once their clothes—undies included, of course—are dirty, they shoot them into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they burn.

But this practice is quite expensive. According to Smithsonian, a crew of six goes through 408 kilograms of clothing every single year! And then there’s the stench – the crew has to keep their dirty garments until there’s enough to be ejected into space.

So, to put an end to this problem and free up storage space, researchers at NASA have developed long-lasting fibres that are easy-to-clean and germ resistant. And the first shipment left on Sunday. So for the next few weeks, ISS astronauts will be testing the new fabric.

Named the Intravehicual Activity Clothing Study (IVA Clothing Study), it replaces crew uniforms with non-cotton clothing that has to be worn during the astronauts’ daily two-and-a-half-hour exercise regime for a total of 15 days.

“The exercise clothing are hung up to dry for up to four hours and then stored in flame-resistant bags. A questionnaire is taken daily soon after exercise to document perception of the exercise clothing,” reports Shannon Palus over at Smithsonian.

Three crew members will also test a shirt that can be worn for daily activities. The volunteers will discard the shirt once they think it can’t be worn anymore, and then they will complete a questionnaire.

If the astronauts find these new clothes useful and the fabric manages to keep them fresh, we may soon see a new collection of space garments for ISS residents. And, with a bit of of luck, the fabric may also be used to create sportswear for those here on Earth – stink-free yoga wear? Yes, please.