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Boeing proposes using gas clouds to bring down orbital debris


October 4, 2012

A rendering of the debris cloud surrounding the earth (Image: NASA)

A rendering of the debris cloud surrounding the earth (Image: NASA)

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Boeing has filed a patent for a method of disposing of dead satellites and other debris orbiting the earth by hitting them with a puff of gas. The method, which is still at the conceptual stage, is designed to slow down satellites, forcing them to re-enter the atmosphere without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of.

On February 10, 2009, one of the worst nightmares of space travel occurred. At 789 kilometers (490 mi) above the Earth, the Iridium 33 and Kosmos 2251 satellites collided at hypersonic speed, spraying thousands of pieces of debris into space – each one a potential hazard to spacecraft or astronauts. In the 55 years since the launch of Sputnik, thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit and they, along with their boosters and assorted bits, pose an increasing risk of more collisions spewing more debris resulting in more collisions.

Over the years, many solutions have been proposed for getting rid of all that orbiting rubbish. There have been plans for grappling satellites, harpoons, solar sails and even balloons. The only problem is that most of these ideas involve launching more satellites into orbit, rendezvousing with the dead satellite or other debris, latching onto it and then either dragging it back to Earth or shooting it somewhere safe in outer space. That is very complicated, expensive and risks putting even more debris into orbit while cleaning up what’s already there.

The Boeing patent filed by inventor Michael Dunn suggests that the alternative is to use what is called “ballistic gas.” The idea is to send a small satellite into orbit containing a gas generator. This generator can be a tank of cryogenic gas, such as xenon or krypton, or a device designed to vaporize a heavy metal or some relatively heavy elements like fluorine, chlorine, bromine, or iodine. This gas would be released as a cloud in the same orbit as the debris, but traveling in the opposite direction.

The cloud wouldn't last very long, but long enough to hit the debris. By the time it hit, the gas would have expanded until it was almost a vacuum, so it wouldn't damage the debris. In fact, an astronaut caught in such a cloud probably wouldn't even notice it. However being hit by “almost” a vacuum at hypersonic speed is enough to slow down the debris and cause its orbit to decay until it hits the atmosphere.

The beauty of using ballistic gas is not only that it’s mechanically simple and that it doesn't require contact with the debris, but that the gas cloud doesn't even need to be aimed with any precision. All that’s needed is to point the generator in the general direction and let go the gas. For larger satellites or those in higher orbits, multiple puffs can be used to bring it down. Additionally, the gas satellite can be used to take down multiple targets in different orbits, so only a few such satellites would be needed for a clean-up program.

Source: US Patent Office via New Scientist

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

I like the idea of using gas but of course the problem,as always ,is getting up there without causing more pollution due to failed launches . Perhaps a better deployment of this gas system is to launch it using the old 'super gun ' technology which guarantees a successful launch into low orbits . In any case we really must clean up pollution in space .


Would the amount of momentum the trash loses when colliding with the gas really be enough to get it down to where the atmosphere would start to work to slow it further?

I had sometimes wondered about something like this but I assumed that it would not have been practical due to the speed and mass of the debris (and because no one else seemed to be suggesting it).

Snake Oil Baron

This sounds brilliant if it pans out...but are there any that have Nuclear Power Modules that could cause accidental poisonings or other negative results?

R Ohge

Does the word "hypersonic" have meaning about the atmosphere?


The British way. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19803461 Looks like more fun!


so, is it time for OSHA or the EPA or somebody to require CO2 cartridges to force re-entry to avoid the pollution? LoL. but look at the pics...plastic in the Pacific ocean comes to mind.

The robot gas jet in space might work for random asteroids too if catchable soon enough. Toutatis 6179 (4179? JPL) is due around christmas. How long does it take to get one up in space?

I'd wonder about ground based lasers for smaller (larger?) junk , and relative meteorite sizes.

pics look a little cluttered for a solar sail powered 'junk' to survive. my 0.02$


No need for a patent. Put a couple satellites at the Lagrangian points that deploy a large reflective mirror with adjustable focal length. They'd create their own little GPS network with the ability to track and target specific debris. Not strong enough to affect large debris or accidentally damage other objects -- as it's a cumulative effect -- but just enough heat to either slow down or alter the debris' orbit. 5 satellites you put up once and refuel never....


Wouldn't be better if they design all the satellites with an "Auto-destruction" device on board?


If you want to write a story about how to REALLY clean up "space junk", please contact Star Technology and Research, not Boeing. They do not need advertising, particularly when the solution they propose does not really make sense, would cost about 100 times more than the real solution, would need VERY expensive in-flight re-fueling (which they SELL also, naturally!!!), and on top of that, proposes to "trash" millions and millions of dollars of expensive material already in orbit instead of recycling it in-situ for space-based industrial manufacturing!!!! The Electro-Dynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE: (http://www.star-tech-inc.com/id121.html) is a self-powered system that never needs re-fueling (works like an electric motor using the Earth's magnetic field as "fuel"), currently being built with NASA, capable of rendez-vous with and “clean up” ALL the space debris at no further costs than the initial build and launch!!! EDDE is designed to grapple the debris and re-locate it into a safe "parking orbit" until the capability to recycle it is developed to re-use all those very expensive alloys and materials for space-based manufacturing of anything we will want to build up there!!! A larger version of EDDE IS ALSO CAPABLE OF SAVING THE HUBBLE, which is also slated for de-orbiting and destruction (!!!???) once its position-keeping fuel is exhausted!!!! Only the Space Shuttle was capable of servicing it, at enormous costs!!! EDDE could grapple the Hubble, and move it within easy reach of the ISS Space Station. From there, it could continue to serve us, and be easily serviced by the ISS atronauts. Please help us promote a solution that works AND makes sense!! I would like to submit an article to you on this subject, please.

Thanks. MB - Ad Astra, NUNC! (To the Stars, NOW!!!)

Ad Astra, NUNC!!!

Mt stromlo observatory is planning to use lasers from earth to de-orbit small bits of junk in a few years, but i suppose the gas might be better for mid sized debris? There is a real risk of an avalanche effect taking hold in the near future (10 yrs?).

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