Earth has a lot of junk in its atmosphere, and I'm not talking about pollutants--I'm talking 500,000 chunks of debris of various sizes orbiting the Earth and achieving top speeds of 17,500 mph.
Back in 2016, a satellite commissioned by the European Space Agency was damaged by one of these lightning-quick pieces of space junk. Thankfully, the damage was minimal, but only because the debris was so small. If it had been larger, chances are the entire solar panel would have been decimated. According to Jason Derleth of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts project, if debris continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, collisions between pieces of junk will increase and essentially clog up the lower atmosphere.
“If that ever happens it will make space unusable essentially, and we’re pretty close to that,” he notes.
That's why his NIAC program is now funding research into ways to deal with this growing problem. One company funded by this program, The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, California, has conceived a brilliant and efficient way to get rid of all this junk without creating more junk (yay!).
Artist's rendition of the Brane Craft (NASA)
It's called the "Brane Craft," and it's really small, at just one square yard. Even more amazing is the thinness of the craft--it's made out of plastic that's just 10 microns thick. To put that in perspective, that's just about 6% of the thickness of one of your hairs.
You may be thinking: so how does a craft that small propel itself? It uses a liquid fuel that is stored in the microscopic gap between the plastic and the electronics printed on top. An extremely efficient engine, called an electrospray thruster, uses this fuel frugally to get the Brane Craft wherever it needs to go--no enormous, expensive thrusters required!
So, how will it work? Jason Derleth compares it to "one giant piece of saran wrap." Top scientist for The Aerospace Corporation, Siegfried Janson, sees sending fifty Brane Crafts at once into the atmosphere. Once they've reached low Earth orbit, they will essentially hunt down debris and enwrap it. To slow the debris, Popular Science reports that it will "fire its thrusters to push in the opposite direction to the one the debris was traveling in." About ten days later, the object has slowed enough to be pulled into the Earth's atmosphere and burned up along with the Brane Craft.
Not to worry, though, the Brane Craft will be cheap enough that its incineration won't be an issue. Currently, launching even a small satellite runs about $250k, but the Brane Craft will hopefully cost just 2% of that at $5,000 per launch. Not chump change exactly, but much cheaper than the current cost.
The Brane Craft may one day protect Earth from asteroids (Meteor falling to Earth by State Farm via VisualHunt.com, used per provisions of CC Attribution License 2.0. Some modifications were made to the original work.)
But with an estimated 10 years before the Brane Craft will be ready for action, there are no shortage of challenges ahead. For instance, scientists at The Aerospace Corporation are looking for ways to protect this extremely thin craft from the radiation it will be exposed to while in space. According to Popular Science, they're currently developing "carbon-nanotube circuits" that can remain in orbit for up to a month before being damaged.
Tiny pieces of debris, which Janson calls "tiny bullets" also threaten to puncture the superthin spacecraft. But in spite of these challenges, the possibilities for the Brane Craft are endless. Initially, the objective will be to capture debris under 5 inches in size, but in the future, Janson envisions the Brane Crafts doing much more, like visiting other parts of the solar system and bringing back samples. With the craft's incredibly efficient fueling system, this is certainly within reach.
Not only that, but the Brane Craft could one day be used to protect Earth from deadly asteroids. Personally, I'd just like to use one as a magic carpet, but I guess saving Earth from catastrophe is more important.
However it's used, the Brane Craft shows a lot of promise in helping us get our space junk problem under control. Once we do that, we can secure the promise of deeper and deeper exploration of the endless sea of stars for the next generation.
Comment below: What applications do you see for the Brane Craft? Do you think it's the best solution to the space junk problem?
Also, if you're interested in more posts like this, be sure to check out my other "Real Life Sci-fi" posts!
I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover & writer who especially likes talking about Star Wars and futuristic tech. I like finding new things & finding the beauty in old things, especially in my "Everyday Snippets" series. I hope you'll join me on my blog and unleash your imagination!