Tungsten cloud to clean up space junk

If you are a follower of space flight then you undoubtedly know about the increasing problem of  space junk: the mass debris formed from fifty years of manned and unmanned space flight, satellite launches and everything else we’ve thrown up there without a proper recovery plan.

A new proposal suggests that we might deploy a tungsten dust cloud that would adhere to the junk, increasing its mass and causing it to fall back to Earth – burning up on re-entry.

The article linked to suggests a problem with this – that the tungsten could coalesce into balls adding  more debris to the pile. But I see a more fundamental problem.

How do you stop the tungsten from sticking to the wrong thing?

If we launch tonnes of tungsten dust into orbit, isn’t it just going to stick to everything up there including sensitive functional satellites?

Putting more junk into the skies doesn’t strike me as a rational way of reducing junk in the skies.

The Space Shuttle: $200 Billion Turkey?

As we enter the final days of the Space Shuttle program, new research has shown that the cost per flight was $1.5 billion per flight with a total cost of nearly $200 billion.

While many of the achievements of the space shuttle have been applauded, criticism of the performance and efficacy of the programme came early and proved to be scarily accurate. A year before the first launch, the Washington Monthly forecast many of the Shuttle’s subsequent problems: the overambitious launch schedule and subsequent higher costs per flight, the lack of a practical abort method, and the fragility of the Shuttle’s thermal protection system.


Space Shuttle in hanger
The vision for processing the Shuttle for its next flight was incredibly simple
Space shuttle in hanger surrounded by complex framework
Compare the vision with the actual ground processing environment

The Shuttle technology was largely derived from old technology and didn’t push the boundaries of what might be achieved and yet, despite this, still managed to be both highly unreliable and costly. NASA made a lot of promises for the Shuttle program and when they found it impossible to deliver on these
they changed the rules, played games and hid the truth; while cutting safety procedures and pushing for unrealistic and unsafe launch schedules. Taking part in the investigation into the Challenger investigation, Richard Feynman said NASA was trying to “repeal the laws of nature” through its risky and overly aggressive launch schedules.

Studies of other alternative launch technologies available at the time show that the Shuttle was no cheaper and significantly less reliable than the Saturn technology it replaced. But in throwing away the Saturn programme, NASA also lost the ability to reach the moon and in doing so threw away the possibility of any kind of Mars mission too.

The Shuttles looked the part, for sure. They looked like the kind of space plane that we see in science fiction and promised to deliver that level of access to space. But appearances can be, and were, deceptive. The writing was on the wall from a very early time in the programme’s life, but no-one dared talk about the ceramic-tile coated white elephant that was in the corner of the room.

Once the Shuttle is gone, NASA will rely on commercial companies for access to space. Without the spectre of the Shuttle unfairly competing with them, we can hope that these companies will be able to successfully develop.

[Images courtesy: Wikipedia]

Have Spaceship. Will travel.

Great news from the space development front. Independent Rocket company SpaceX have announced the development of the Falcon Heavy, their entry into the ‘heavy lifter’ category of launch vehicles.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Lift-off

The Falcon heavy will provide double the delivery capacity (a whopping 53 tonnes!) of  all existing systems, dwarfing both the Delta IV and the Space Shuttle. This means that the cost of delivering payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will drop significantly – in fact the company estimates that the launcher would save the US $1 billion in launch services per year.

The impact of this system when it comes on stream will be huge, providing access to space at a fraction of the current cost (something that the badly flawed shuttle was supposed to do and never achieved) and allowing the delivery of systems (Imagine a space telescope 5 times as big as the Hubble!) of previously unachievable size.

The engineering of the SpaceX fleet shows real imagination and a determination to push back the boundaries of what is possible in rocketry. We should all feel proud of the achievements that they have made and undoubtedly will achieve in the future.

No doubt they will have their share of issues in the future; as their rival Scaled Composites unfortunately showed, the path to Space is not an easy one. Nevertheless, let us hope that they (and Scaled Composites) continue the push to take us truly into space.

Nothing of any value is achieved without a cost.