In spite of our best intentions, we tend to leave a lot of litter around. There is an expectation that there are garbage trucks ready and waiting to collect up and haul the stuff off. The more remote the spot and more difficult it is to get to, the bigger the problem. The lack of a regular garbage pick up has made parts of Antarctica and Mount Everest messy when they should be pristine.

The problems in getting to difficult and dangerous places seem to engender a feeling that we can forget about taking our rubbish home. We now have huge islands of plastic debris in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as “seafill depositories” which we pay as little attention to as landfill sites. However, this junk is swishing around slowly. Not so the huge amount of space junk out there in low earth orbit that is flying around at 17,000 miles per hour.
Our junk pile - illustration from NASA 
A strategy for clean up in our local cosmos has been proposed by Castronouvo in Acta Astronautica (1,2) which is currently in press. He is suggesting that we make a start with the forty-one large dead rocket bodies that are cluttering up the place and have no interest to anyone before they bang into each other or other stuff and add more bits to the annual proliferation of junk.

The suggestion is that we launch a satellite with lots of little kamakazi robots which will sidle up to the rocket bodies,  grab hold and then put the brakes on with the result that they will fall and burn up with a nice visual display across the sky.

The plan is modest at 5 to 10 units a year, but the bigger issue isn’t one of efficiency but of international politics. Politicians, as we know well, are not the clearest thinkers on the planet and are worried that if one country starts getting rid of stuff in orbit, then their top-secret stuff might get swept away with it. After all someone else’s space junk may be their spy satellite. So, as usual, the big problem isn’t the technical ability to clean up the place, it’s back to finger pointing and political ill-will.


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