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    • CommentAuthorbarryhall
    • CommentTimeOct 10th 2009
    Robots that rescue failing satellites and push "dead" ones into outer space should be ready in four years, it has emerged. Experts described the development by German scientists as a crucial step in preventing a disaster in the Earth's crowded orbit.
    Last year it was reported that critical levels of debris circling the Earth were threatening astronauts' lives and the future of the multibillion-pound satellite communications industry. But senior figures at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) told the Observer they have been given the go-ahead to tackle a crisis that will come to a head in the next five to 10 years as more orbiting objects run out of fuel.
    Their robots will dock with failing satellites to carry out repairs or push them into "graveyard orbits", freeing vital space in geostationary orbit. This is the narrow band 22,000 miles above the Earth in which orbiting objects appear fixed at the same point. More than 200 dead satellites litter this orbit. Within 10 years that number could increase fivefold, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety has warned.
    Klaus Landzettel, head of space robotics at DLR, said engineering advances, including the development of machines that can withstand temperatures ranging from -170C (-274F) to 200C (392F), meant that the German robots will be "ready to be used on any satellite, whether it's designed to be docked or not". In 2007, the US Orbital Express project succeeded in refuelling an orbiting satellite. However, that satellite had been specifically designed to dock with the device.
    Observer (UK) 11/10/09
  1.  (7001.2)
    Why don't they push them into the atmosphere to burn up?
    • CommentAuthorPhranky
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    What about the rest of the junk in space that can't be docked with?
  2.  (7001.4)
    @William George
    Because that can cause a hazard to people on the ground if it goes wrong. Although it is puzzling since that's the usual method of disposal. A graveyard orbit sounds like it could just cause problems for later, since any stable orbit that could be used as a graveyard is bound to be useful for other things too.

    "ready to be used on any satellite, whether it's designed to be docked or not" The article answers your question. I'm sure if they can carry out repairs, they can also pick up and move small space junk too.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    Interesting. Am I being overly cynical in assuming that if a civillian version will be ready in four years or so, then a military version probably exists now?
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    @ William George and Paul Duffield they would also have to make sure to not knock out a satellite in Low Earth Orbit or Medium Earth Orbit on the way down.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    Plus it's a lot easier and cheaper to nudge it into an orbit a few hundred miles above or below geosynchronous orbit than to decelerate it enough to get it to deorbit.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    @Curb, it's a lot easier just to hit a satellite with a warhead if you want to disable it.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    ^ I thought that would be the case, but under the right circumstances moving or capturing enemy satellites could be useful too, right? Particularly if you're looking to guarantee your own satellites remain unharmed whilst maintaining a little plausible deniability...

    Ech, I have probably watched too many bad spy films.
  3.  (7001.10)
    @curb I know that the US military has been testing a satellite killing laser for years, and I think that China is probably developing one in response.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    Ooh thanks, that's intriguing - a-googling I will go...
    • CommentAuthorDC
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    @Kosmo You hit a satelite with a warhead and you get millions of little debris that go undetected and could cause a lot of trouble. The space shuttle in every mission has to be repaired due to small debris. I remember China launched a missile to destroy a satellite and the litter is created was so vast that for the next days everyone was preoccupied with the problems that dumb move could create..

    The manga Planetes is a really good story about a crew of space garbage collectors that focus a lot on what we're talking about.
  4.  (7001.13)
    It wasn't a dumb move, as much as a foreign policy statement. It would be quite possible to use missiles that do little other than "push* things out of the way. I think both the use of a very crude missile technology, too much delivery system and consequent debris, was all part of a plan designed to show just how much of a mess could be made with very minimal effort.

    Moving stuff away from the Earth is so much more practical. shunt it hard enough and it'll just wind up being grabbed by the gravity of a body with slightly less people to drop it on.
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    Yeah, that makes sense - sort of a continuation of the Cold War "look at what we're crazy enough to do if pushed" ethos.

    This New Scientist article covers some of the issues that have been bought up here.
    • CommentAuthorKosmopolit
    • CommentTimeOct 11th 2009
    The Chinese have far fewer spysats and comsats than the US.

    In the event of war, unrestricted attacks on satellites would end up hurting the US far worse than China.
    • CommentTimeOct 12th 2009
    The problem with putting junk in a graveyard orbit is that eventually the bits of junk will collide with each other, expanding the size of the orbit to impinge on other, more useful orbits.
  5.  (7001.17)
    On the other hand it cost us a lot to put that junk up there. Maybe in a few (many) years that graveyard will be a valuable source of recyclable stuff for an orbiting satellite factory to use. Or at least something for cosmonauts on the ISS to circuit-bend when they're bored.
  6.  (7001.18)
    The graveyard will become a museum of our old technology.
  7.  (7001.19)
    @Klumaster & Jamie Coville
    Those are kinda cool ideas. I wonder if there'll be political tensions between space-graveyard opportunists and conservationists?
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeOct 13th 2009 edited
    The problem I can see with this is that it's going to cost about as much to move each satellite to a new orbit as it did to get it there in the first place - if not more. And who's going to foot that bill?

    I say that because the only way I can envision it working is: robot is launched toward one specific satellite, latches on (at about the same cost of the first launch) and then boosts robot+sat into graveyard (add $$$$$$), end of mission. It's not going to be zipping around in orbit tidying things away one after another, unless they've come up with something pretty magical in terms of propulsion.