The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) is working on a project called Clean Space One, which aims to grab the university’s own “CubeSat” from orbit and drag it down to be destroyed in the Earth’s atmosphere.

(Read “Cleaning Up Space Debris.”)

SwissCube, in a reflective room. Source: extremetech.comSwissCube, in a reflective room. Source: extremetech.comCubeSats are single-purpose orbiting devices that are deployed in batches by a larger launch vehicle. They measure around 10 centimeters on a side. Their low cost and launch weight have seen them quickly gain ground. EPFL launched a CubeSat of its own in 2009, called SwissCube. As it approaches the end of its life, EPFL researchers are working to design a way to clear it from space, according to an article posted at ExtremeTech.

The team has settled on a capture design for Clean Space One; a conical net that can close around SwissCube and secure it so it can be dragged down into the atmosphere.

Clean Space One has an advanced sensor capable of handling the challenges of satellite capture. Not the least of these is that SwissCube is so small and inconsistently reflective that its exact speed and rotation are difficult to measure. With a high dynamic range camera that can pick up both the intense reflection and the dark spaces in between them, the space cleaning device can approach safely, without knocking the SwissCube. The net has to envelop SwissCube in one motion, so the CubeSat does not hit the back of the net and bounce back out.

CubeSats would not remain popular if their low initial cost is offset by a large cleanup expense, and since Clean Space One is terminal in nature, it cannot be reused. That tradeoff makes sense to EPFL, which views the project as being as educational as it is practical. However, when Clean Space One launches in 2018, it will have the potential to alert a wide segment of society to the problems posed by short-sighted satellite policy.

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The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL)

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