Researchers at New York-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are developing a new orbital device that would aid in cleaning up space debris surrounding the planet.

The semi-autonomous device would seek out, capture, and de-orbit space junk.

There is a lot to pick up, as the European Space Agency (ESA) estimates there to be nearly 129 million pieces of debris in space.

The junk poses a real threat as some of these objects move at such high velocity that even something very small can do extensive damage.

In 2016, ESA astronaut Tim Peake took a picture of a chip in one of the International Space Station’s windows that the agency believes was made by a tiny piece of space debris, possibly just a paint flake.

To help, a team of Rensselaer researchers will be working on OSCaR, standing for “Obsolete Spacecraft Capture and Removal.” It’s a small satellite known as CubeSats, made of 3 very small 10 cubic centimetre blocks. But, because OSCaR is so small, it can be inexpensively sent into space aboard larger vehicles and then released to nearly autonomously seek out, capture, and then de-orbit space debris.

OSCaR. Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
OSCaR. Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“There’s a real problem,” said Kurt Anderson, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer. “The amount of observed debris is increasing faster now than the rate that we’re actually putting more objects into space."

The researchers want to build one unit to house the “brains” of OSCaR including GPS, data storage, and communication, as well as the power and thermal management systems.

Another will hold propellant and the system’s propulsion module to drive OSCaR forward.

A third unit will contain 4 gun barrels, nets, and tethers to physically capture debris, one piece at a time.

OSCaR’s capture module will also have optical, thermal, and RADAR imaging sensors to help it locate debris in the vastness of its surrounding space.

After it is done collecting debris, OSCaR will be programmed to de-orbit itself within five years, destroying itself and the debris it caught.

For more information watch this video published on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute YouTube channel.

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