UK researchers have developed a device to clear dangerous space garbage from lower earth orbit.
After 50 years of space travel, more than 5,500 tonnes of junk is believed to be cluttering space around the planet. There's a risk of collision with spacecraft or of large items crashing back to earth; the debris is also believed to obstruct satellite television and other communications signals.
The University of Surrey scientists have devised a 3kg miniature satellite - or 'nanosatellite' - fitted with a solar sail which could trawl around in lower earth orbit to trap debris and bring it down safely.
They say the CubeSail could be fitted to satellites or launch vehicles and used to trap equipment that has reached the end of its mission. A prototype will be launched late next year.
"Protecting our planet and environment is key for sustainable growth. CubeSail is a novel, low cost space mission which will demonstrate for the first time space debris/satellite deorbiting using an ultra light 5 x 5m sail stowed and supported on a 3kg nanosatellite," said
Dr Vaios Lappas, lead researcher on the project.
"Following successful in orbit demonstration, the proposed deorbit system will be offered as a standard deorbit system for low earth orbit missions for satellites with a mass of less than 500kg at a very low cost."
CubeSail is due to be ready for launch on new satellites next year, and is expected to be available for shifting existing debris from 2013.