At 16:56 UTC on August 29, 2009, an Iridium communications satellite suddenly fell silent. In the hours that followed, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network reported that it was tracking two large clouds of debris—one from the Iridium and another from a defunct Russian military satellite called Cosmos 2251.
The debris was the result of a high-speed collision, the first time this is known to have happened between orbiting satellites. The impact created over 1,000 fragments greater than 10 centimeters in size and a much larger number of smaller pieces. This debris spread out around the planet in a deadly cloud.
Space debris is a pressing problem for Earth-orbiting spacecraft, and it could get significantly worse. When the density of space debris reaches a certain threshold, analysts predict that the fragmentation caused by collisions will trigger a runaway chain reaction that will fill the skies with ever increasing numbers of fragments. By some estimates that process could already be underway.
An obvious solution is to find a way to remove this debris. One option is to zap the larger pieces with a laser, vaporizing them in parts and causing the leftovers to deorbit. However, smaller pieces of debris cannot be dealt with in this way because they are difficult to locate and track.
Another option is send up a spacecraft capable of mopping up debris with a net or some other capture process. But these missions are severely limited by the amount of fuel they can carry.
Today, Lei Lan and pals from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, propose a different solution. Their idea is to build an engine that converts space debris into propellant and so can maneuver itself almost indefinitely as it mops up the junk.
Their idea is simple in principle. At a high enough temperature, any element can be turned into a plasma of positive ions and electrons. This can be used as a propellant by accelerating it through an electric field.