NanoTerminator Prevents Annoying Space Debris Build-Up

The nanoTerminator, recently released by TUI (Tethers Unlimited International), could help to prevent a rapidly growing problem in space - human-made debris from rockets and satellites. Although space is large (the volume of the known universe is about 1.9 x 10(33) cubic light years), space junk is a problem because it is concentrated right where we want to go - within a few hundred miles of the Earth's surface. Collisions with working spacecraft have already happened.


(NASA' actual space debris tracking)

These pieces of space debris range in size from flecks of paint and insulation to whole rocket stages and dead satellites. The greatest concentration of objects is found in the area between 550 miles and 625 miles above the Earth, above the orbits of the International Space Station and most shuttle flights. The US Space Surveillance Network tracks over 13,000 objects larger than ten centimeters.

The nanoTerminator™ is just 55 mm high and masses about 56 grams. It contains a 100-meter long space-survivable conducting tether and a simple spring-based deployment system. It can be integrated into a nanosat either externally or internally with an appropriate aperture for ejection. The module is designed to fit perfectly within the cylindrical ejection post of Ecliptic’s RocketPod CubeSat Plus.


(nanoTerminator on Earth and deployed in space)

When the satellite reaches the end of its operational phase, a release mechanism deploys the tether. Gravity gradient forces will orient the tether along the local vertical; the conducting tether will drag against the geomagnetic field, rapidly lowering the orbit of the nanosatellite until it burns up in the upper atmosphere.

Science fiction authors have thought about this for a long time. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about Operation Cleanup, required before the space elevator in his 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise could be built. Read more about the Clarke connection (and more about how tethers work) in an earlier story about the Terminator Tether - EDT Solution To Space Debris.

Makoto Yukimura began publishing Planetes in Japan in 1999; the first graphic novel form was published in 2000. Planetes follows the story of a team of debris cleaners charged with clearing space junk from space flight paths.


Planetes cover art

The journal Science just published a new study about space debris; it starts with the simplifying assumption that no rocket bodies or spacecraft will be launched for the next two hundred years. Based on the data, it looks like new fragments from collisions will replace the population of objects that fall out of orbit and back to Earth. Beyond 2055, fragments from new collisions will actually cause the debris population to grow. We may need both nanoTerminators and space debris teams to clean up this problem.

Read Space Junk Cleanup and Space debris a growing problem; thanks to Fred Kiesche for writing in with the story and manga references.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 1/25/2006)

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