As space junk soars, science turns to nature for ideas
Key Excerpts from Article on Website of Christian Science Monitor
Posted: January 22nd, 2018
It was satellites that launched the space age, and its satellites that could bring it all crashing down. If not for the nearly three dozen atomic clocks providing reliably precise timestamps to anyone with an antenna, financial markets and cell service would quickly fall apart. It doesnt take much to reduce these finely tuned machines to ... wrecks. With life expectancies rarely exceeding a decade, [satellites] are surprisingly disposable. And as new arrivals and old relics crowd the useful, near-Earth orbits, governments and researchers seek ways to restore spaces once infinite promise. Everybody recognizes that this is a problem, and that the problem is getting worse, says Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) robotics researcher Aaron Parness. Now, a collaboration between Dr. Parnesss JPL group and a team of Stanford engineers suggests this man-made problem might have a nature-inspired solution: gecko-like pads sticky enough to grab objects in the harsh vacuum of space. The Department of Defense catalogs tens of thousands of artificial objects around Earth, but fragments too small to track likely number in the millions. Any one of these hyper-speed projectiles could cause impact damage. The tipping point at which satellite shards destroy other satellites faster than the atmosphere can swallow them up has already passed. Retrieving such shards is nearly impossible, leaving only one practical solution. Get rid of the big stuff. Get rid of the source, [NASA astrophysicist Donald] Kessler urges.
Note: The article above includes detailed charts of the accumulation of space debris surrounding the planet. In 2016, CNN reported that NASA had set up a "Planetary Defense Coordination Office" to defend the Earth from space rubble.