Friday, October 16, 2009
Here's an article regarding an idea that I was expecting to come to the fore eventually. Though LEO (Low Earth Orbit) is still mostly just empty space, there are still enough satellites and pieces of space junk in orbit now that each one of them needs to be tracked and kept an eye on in order to prevent collisions in orbit. In spite of this, though, sometimes satellites can hit each other, resulting in extra pieces of debris being scattered about and making the area even more dangerous for other satellites. In theory this could eventually reach a critical level, where one satellite hitting another increases the risk to others, and this increased chance of collision results in one sooner rather than later, which creates more debris, until eventually LEO is just filled with tiny pieces of space junk and is a no-go zone for satellites.
This is why the development of these robots is in place and should be ready in four years, according to the article. The robots being sent up would do things such as repair old satellites, or push them into higher orbits where they are not a danger to others. This is actually something that the private space industry should definitely be interested in, since if old satellites can be repaired then some may be able to be put back into service without having to spend money on a new launch, and keeping the area clear is also a way to drive down insurance costs.
The technology used here will also be very useful in other applications, such as refueling. Perhaps eventually a similar robot could be launched that would act as a kind of gas station, stored with a fuel such as xenon for ion engines. A probe would then be able to be constructed with as much mass as possible for scientific instruments alone (instead of having to make room for fuel), which would then dock with the refueling craft, obtain its supply of xenon and then begin its long journey to wherever it happens to be headed.