It’s getting crowded in space. Just outside Earth’s atmosphere, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is cluttered with decades’ worth of man-made junk.
Space debris threatens spaceflight and the many satellites we rely on for weather reports, global communications (including cell phones and wifi), and air travel.
More than 750,000 fragments larger than a centimeter are thought to hurtle around Earth. Each is like a speeding bullet that could badly damage a satellite. Last year, a tiny piece of debris punched a gaping hole in the solar panel of Copernicus Sentinel 1A, a European Space Agency satellite.
Experts say the problem will get worse as companies like SpaceX and Google send new satellites into space. They fear a theoretical catastrophe called Kessler Syndrome.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler warned that any collision in space could set off a chain reaction.
It could happen like this: Debris collides with a satellite, breaking off more pieces. Each of those then collides with other orbiting objects, exploding them into even more dangerous bits. The nightmare scenario is an ever-growing cascade of collisions. With each hit, LEO becomes more cluttered until nothing can orbit safely—possibly for generations.
The potential effect is loss of all satellite-supported technology on Earth below.
Proposals for cleaning up space first include hard-to-implement rules for preventing space junk. Those could include limiting the time any satellite stays in orbit and making sure it returns completely to Earth.
Next, scientists say some sort of space vacuum cleaner is needed—but how it will work is unclear. Ideas include robotic arms with nets and harpoons to nab floating debris. Some suggest lasers to fry the smallest bits.
Raul Polit Casillas has another idea. The systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, embodies a creativity like the biblical Bezalel. (Exodus 35:30-32) He is designing a woven metal fabric. It looks a lot like medieval chain mail.
Casillas believes his fabric could insulate spacecraft from light, heat, cold—and debris impact. It’s highly flexible, so it folds over objects of any shape. Because the material is made of 3-D printed links that form a continuous fabric, it doesn’t shatter upon impact like sheet metal does. This lessens the potential for debris in space.
It could even revolutionize the way spacecraft are engineered, start to finish. Instead of assembling a ship from individual components, a single continuous sheet could form an entire vessel.
Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta is behind funding for the fabric. He is optimistic, saying, “We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”