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European Space Agency plans mission to fight dead satellites

The European Space Agency (ESA) has proposed a new mission to tackle dead orbiting satellites which pose a “very big danger” to the Earth, the Press Association reports.

Speaking at the agency’s ministerial council, its director general Johann-Dietrich Worner said that of almost 4,500 satellites in orbit, only 1,500 are active. The problem is expected to grow, with the number of satellites launched increasing every year.

In July, Amazon asked the US Federal Communications Commission for permission to launch more than 3000 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) to provide broadband to underserved parts of the world.

“We have a situation of meteorites - the dinosaurs died out because of a meteorite, most probably,” Worner said. “We don’t want to be dying out because of a meteorite, and therefore we should have a look to that. And to make two things - to have observations to have early pre-warning, but at the same time... to really fight against it, to have what I call ‘playing billiards in space’, and together with the Americans, we are proposing a mission in that.”

“And then we have the space debris. Space debris, especially from upper stages, from adapters, from old satellites. We have about something like 4,500 satellites in orbit - only 1,500 are active, meaning 3,000 are dead: a very big danger,” he continued.  “And therefore we are proposing a mission where we bring down some ESA-owned asset which is still flying around the Earth. And at the same time with the same mission we would also demonstrate that it’s possible to avoid future space debris by doing also some direct de-orbiting.”

Various proposals have been made to deal with the worsening space junk problem. Last year, a satellite named RemoveDebris was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to carry out a series of experiments designed to demonstrated effective technologies that can be used to observe and capture space debris. Other devices such as harpoons, nets and robotic arms are also being developed that will enable a garbage-removal spacecraft to grab a defunct satellite and pull it down towards the Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up.

At the same meeting Worner also said that would be “smart” to look at bringing samples back from Mars, rather than putting astronauts on the red planet due to the difficulties of achieving such a feat. He explained it would involve an American rover collecting samples and leaving them in tiny containers on the planet’s surface, to be collected by a European rover once it had moved on to another area.

After finding the samples the European rover would put them in a bigger container and take them to a small launch space where it would be launched into the planet’s orbit.

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