Space Junk Cleanup – Starship’s Potential as an Orbital Sanitation Vehicle

Over decades of space activity, the orbit around Earth has become littered with defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, fragments from explosions and collisions, and other human-made debris. This space junk hurtles around the planet at velocities up to 17,500 mph, posing a collision risk to functioning spacecraft and satellites. Experts warn the accumulating debris could set off a runaway chain reaction of collisions that makes some orbital zones unusable.

Enter SpaceX’s Starship – the massive, next-generation reusable rocket currently under development. With its unprecedented lift capacity, rapid launch cadence, ability to refuel in orbit, and large cargo bay, Starship may have the right capabilities to become an orbital garbage truck. Here’s how it could work:

The Junk Sweeper

Starship would be equipped with a broad, extendable cargo bay door fitted with an expansive debris collection net up to 50 meters across. Upon reaching orbit, the net would unfurl to capture pieces of space junk as Starship gradually passes through debris fields. Starship would maneuver to match orbits and intercept objects with precision.

Junk Dump to Burn Up in Atmosphere

Once the collection net is filled with debris, Starship could position itself to a low orbit and essentially dump the junk like a garbage truck, allowing the debris to burn up in the atmosphere. This eliminates the need to return the debris to Earth, allowing Starship to execute repeat debris collection runs until the orbit is cleared.

Extended Mission Duration Via In-Space Refueling

Starship’s ability to be refueled while in orbit enables extremely long mission durations not possible with conventional single-launch rockets. A refueled Starship could remain in orbit for a year or more, methodically clearing out debris around Earth.

Advanced Debris Capture Technologies Could Be Employed

Future Starship variants could employ advanced debris capturing payloads like configurable nets, harpoons, robotic arms, and fast-acting adhesives applied from a distance. Starship’s voluminous cargo bay provides flexibility for large-scale capture technologies not possible with current launch vehicles.

Economically Feasible Orbital Sanitation

As a rapidly reusable launch vehicle, Starship promises to drastically reduce launch costs. Paired with its immense lift capacity to orbit, Starship makes dedicated orbital debris removal commercially viable and economically feasible on a multi-mission scale.

A Clean Slate for 21st Century Space Operators

By leveraging its unique capabilities, SpaceX may possess the ideal orbital garbage truck system in Starship. If deployed proactively on a continuous basis, Starship could prevent a spiraling Kessler syndrome space junk catastrophe, keeping vital orbital zones open for sustainable exploration and enterprise far into the future.

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