March 6, 2021

A laboratory to transform space junk | Science

A laboratory to transform space junk | Science

Representation of the spatial junk that surrounds the Earth in an image of roosegaarde studio

There is a scene in the movie Gravity (2013), by Alfonso Cuarón, who describes the problem of space junk, formed mostly by the remains of old rockets and satellites orbiting the Earth. In the tape, the destruction of one of these unusable vehicles, by Russia, causes a chain reaction and a cloud of debris hits the space shuttle Explorer. There the protagonists travel, played by the actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It is science fiction, but it has a real base: at this moment, there are 8,100 tons of objects in Earth orbit that can hinder our communications. And nobody knows what to do with them. The Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde has opened a Space Garbage Laboratory to search, with support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and advice from NASA, the way to turn it into sustainable products.

The world premiere of the Laboratory took place last night in Almere, the capital of Flevoland, the youngest province of Holland, created from 1975 in the center of the country on a polder, the land reclaimed from the sea. Roosegaarde studied art and architecture, and chose the best music to show his project: the first measures of the symphonic poem Thus spoke Zarathustra, by the German composer Richard Strauss, included in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by the American director Stanley Kubrick. Later, when night fell, it illuminated the sky with beams of high density LED light, which indicated the space junk located at an altitude between 200 and 20,000 kilometers. It looked like an outdoor installation, but the green verticals followed in real time the scrap that floats around the Earth. The ESA engineers had been in charge of making the calculations fit to locate it and point it out as it passed through the city.

The show was beautiful and amazing, and Franco Ongaro, director of Technology and Engineering at ESA / ESTEC, the European Center for Space Research and Technology, made a comparison. "It's as if the sea is full of ships that never return to port. In the end, world navigation would be paralyzed. If it is not cleaned, the space debris may end up plugging the orbits needed to launch new satellites. There are about 4,700 in space, of which about 1,800 work. Without forgetting the rubble that falls to the Earth, and the natural meteorites, "he said, shortly after admiring the joint work carried out by his experts and the Dutch artist. THAT figure in 29,000 objects of 10 centimeters. There are 750,000 between 1 and 10 centimeters, and 166 million between 1 millimeter and 1 centimeter.

ESTEC is based in the city of Noordwijk, in the west of the country, and is the world's leading provider of satellite data that measures climate change. "You can imagine how worried we are. We want a clean Earth, but we also need a clean space. Rockets and floating satellites are a global problem, which can create the so-called Kessler Syndrome. It is a hypothesis proposed by NASA astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler. He calculated that the volume of space debris in orbit around the Earth will be so high, that there may be a cascading effect with frequent collisions that would generate even more waste, and with them a greater risk of new impacts. "The challenge is twofold: to drag and destroy the current garbage, if possible like meteorites, which are pulverized when they come into contact with the atmosphere, and to build new satellites with materials other than titanium, which is not destroyed in this way".

There are 8,100 tons of objects in Earth orbit that can hinder our communications

Ongaro was delighted with the collaboration with Roosegaarde, "because in art there are ideas that do not occur to us, and we get to many more people". Could an international Convention on satellites and rockets be regulated? "There is a Treaty of the Sea, and a Radio Regulations, which coordinates the frequency bands. At ESA we are already working in this field, and the United Nations is beginning to move in the legal aspect. But we need global agreements, as with the climate, "he says. Daan Roosegaarde, meanwhile, has opened the Space Garbage Laboratory to experts from ESA and NASA, thousands of science students and the general public, "because designing satellites with materials that, to understand ourselves, we could call natural, will take time". "It will take years for security controls to pass, so we must innovate. I want to do something, not just be a consumer. That's why we look at the possibilities of this waste. Maybe they can be used to build 3D houses on the Moon. "

It is not as risky as it may seem. There is another visionary who has managed to make his plans come true. It is Boyan Slat, the Dutch entrepreneur bent on cleaning the Plastic Soup, the floating dump of the North Pacific. Its barrier of 600 meters, so that the winds and currents carry waste there, was deployed last September 8 in the Bay of San Francisco. Designed by The Ocean Cleanup, it was in the testing period, because its goal is to catch almost 70,000 kilos of plastic during the first year of use. "It's technology, design and imagination. And I think that's how innovation begins. We need the contribution of all, "says Roosegaarde. The Space Rubbish Laboratory will present its conclusions on January 19, 2019 at a symposium.


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