The giant claw that catches space junk

Dumped: There are an estimated 160 million pieces of “space junk” orbiting Earth. © NASA

Does space really need cleaning up? A new mission plans to use a huge pincer to remove pieces of debris left in space after 50 years of exploration. But some say that it is a waste of time.

What’s happening

For 14 billion years, space was sparkling clean. All that surrounded Earth was the blanket of gases called the atmosphere. Beyond that, empty space.

Then, in 1957, the first satellite was launched. Since then, humans have added 10,000 more, and space has slowly filled up with manmade litter.

Find out more

The UK will be part of a new mission to remove pieces of debris from space. It plans to do this by building a giant “space junk claw”.

The claw will be the first satellite to collect litter from space and is part of the Clearspace-1 mission planned for 2025. The mission’s main goal is to focus on tidying up the space environment.

Space junk comes from old satellites and objects left in space. It builds up over time. Experts think there are as many as 160 million individual objects in orbit.

One expert has compared the problem to “a drifting island of plastic” in the ocean.

Some say that the claw will help to make space travel more sustainable. Others say space is so big that we do not need to bother.

Does space really need cleaning up?

Some say…

No! There may be a lot of rubbish, but we are forgetting how big the universe is. It would be like clearing one grain of sand from an entire beach – pointless! Most of the rubbish we leave in space is small anyway – like a nail or something an astronaut has dropped. It makes no real difference, and it is a waste of time and money.

Others think…

Yes! If we don’t tidy up, the problem will only grow. Just because space is big, it does not mean we shouldn’t respect it. Space junk can be dangerous, too. Objects move at 22,300 mph. That means they can damage spacecraft and satellites – even astronauts on a spacewalk. If we want to carry on visiting space, we need to clean up after ourselves.

You Decide

  1. The US spends an average of £13 m every year on space exploration. Is it a waste of money?

Activities

  1. Design another satellite that could help pick up rubbish in space. Try to be inspired by everyday objects like a hoover or a net.

Some People Say...

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What do you think?

Word Watch

Space junk
Sometimes known as space debris, this is anything floating in space that has been made by humans.
Satellite
A satellite is a small object that orbits, or revolves around, a larger object in space. They can be natural or manmade. The first human-built satellite was Sputnik 1, sent into space by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Clearspace-1
The mission has been planned by the European Space Association (ESA), an organisation made up of experts from 22 countries.
Objects
One of the strangest objects ever launched into space is a red sports car. It is now around 90 million miles from Mars, travelling at more than 6,000 mph.
Sustainable
Something that can last for a long time without having an impact on the environment around it. While space junk might not be a big problem now, it will only get worse as we add more to the collection of rubbish in space.
Spacewalk
When an astronaut goes outside a spacecraft. Astronauts on the International Space Station have to make regular spacewalks to repair and check the outside of the spacecraft.

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