Swiss Building A 'Janitor' Satellite For Space Junk

Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Anton Ivanov, a scientist with the Swiss Space Center, about the CleanSpace One project. A team of scientists, including Ivanov, is developing a "janitor" satellite, which will remove debris now orbiting in space.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Thousands of objects hurtle around the Earth in space at high speed: bits of defunct satellites and the rockets that launched them into orbit. In short: space junk. Well, now from Switzerland comes a solution to the problem of orbiting debris. The Swiss Space Center is working on a janitor satellite.

Back in 2009, Switzerland launched its own Cube satellite. That's a very small satellite. And now, some might say with characteristically Swiss attention to neatness, the Swiss intend to clean up after themselves.

Dr. Anton Ivanov is a scientist at the Swiss Space Center, and he joins us now from Lausanne.

Dr. Ivanov, welcome to the program.

DR. ANTON IVANOV: Hello.

SIEGEL: And I want you to describe for us what the janitor satellite, as it's been called, will actually do.

IVANOV: Well, first, after launch, we will have to target very precisely orbit of either Swiss Cube or CSat(ph), then we would approach the satellite using a propulsion system. And then there will be a proximity operation where we will have to actually rendezvous with that satellite, grab it, and then de-orbit it to burn in the atmosphere.

SIEGEL: Now, the Swiss Cube satellite, when I said it's small, it's really - it's just a 4-inch square essentially.

IVANOV: Exactly. It's a 4-inch square satellite. It follows what's known as a CubeSat standard, which was developed by Stanford University and Cal Poly University.

SIEGEL: If this janitor satellite is going to be worth the effort, shouldn't it collect more than one 10-centimeter squared satellite?

IVANOV: Yes, absolutely. This particular mission that we're proposing is going to be a technology demonstration. And at the same time, it will achieve a certain mission to remove our own satellite. Besides, we can only go after two satellites that are there in orbit from Switzerland.

SIEGEL: Because that's it for the Swiss satellite program, you said.

IVANOV: For the moment, yes. For the moment, yes. Then definitely, you are thinking about systems that will be able to collect more than one satellite and especially go after smaller debris and larger debris that are in orbit.

SIEGEL: Now, there have been, I gather, just a couple of junk collisions in space that have been noteworthy. And there are, I gather, over 15,000 things up there orbiting. At what point does it become so crowded up there with junk that collisions really would be a danger to be avoided on a routine basis?

IVANOV: Well, this is known as a Kessler effect. And once you're getting more and more junk and random collisions in space, they will start to multiply exponentially. And at some point, all orbits will be so littered with junk that collisions will be almost permanent, and we will not be able to fly operational satellites in low Earth orbits.

SIEGEL: When somebody launches a satellite, do they have any obligation under the law or under treaties as they exist now to, at some point, clean up after themselves and figure out how the satellite is supposed to go away?

IVANOV: I know on the side of the European Space Agency that now they are adopting policies that all of the satellites are supposed to be removed after 25 years. Now, for example, if we fly our Swiss Cube with an altitude of approximately 700 kilometers, it will take it more than 50 years to slow down significantly to re-enter the atmosphere. And this is unacceptable by today's standards that are required by the European Space Agency.

SIEGEL: Hence, the janitor.

IVANOV: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Ivanov, thank you very much for talking with us.

IVANOV: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Anton Ivanov, who's a scientist at the Swiss Space Center. And he spoke to us from Lausanne, Switzerland.

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