SpaceX could use its Starship vehicles to clear space debris in orbit, along with the program’s more well-known purpose of getting people and cargo to the moon and Mars, a company executive said.
Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, said the company’s next generation Starship program could help solve the space debris problem.
“Starship is an amazing new vehicle ability,” Shotwell said in a discussion posted by Time on October 22nd. Shotwell was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020.
The spaceship is the upper stage of a giant new rocket SpaceX is developing to launch more than 100 tons, or more than 220,000 pounds of payload, into low-earth orbit. According to SpaceX, the spacecraft’s methane-powered engines could carry more than 100 tons of cargo to the moon, Mars and other destinations in space when refueled in orbit.
SpaceX designs the spaceship and its massive booster rocket – called the Super Heavy – to be completely reusable. Both vehicles will return to Earth so vertical landings can be rotated for further missions.
“Not only will it lower the cost of access to space, but it’s also the vehicle that would transport people from Earth to Mars,” Shotwell said in an interview with Patrick Lucas Austin, Time technology columnist. “But it also has the ability to hold cargo and crew at the same time, so it’s entirely possible that we could use Starship to get to some of those dead missile bodies – other people’s missiles, of course – and basically pick up some of them Garbage in space. ”
By February of this year, the European Space Agency announced that there were around 22,300 objects in orbit that are regularly tracked and cataloged by space surveillance networks. According to the ESA, around 90% of these objects no longer worked by February.
ESA has proposed a robotic mission to desorb the failed remote sensing satellite Envisat. ESA controllers lost contact with Envisat in 2012, and the bus-sized satellite is not expected to naturally decay from orbit for about 150 years. This means that creating more space debris from collisions with other objects in orbit is a long-term threat.
Other companies like the Japanese startup Astroscale want to demonstrate a commercial service to actively remove decommissioned satellite and rocket stages from orbit.
SpaceX’s starship could do this on a much larger scale.
“It’s not easy – it won’t be easy – but I believe Starship offers the opportunity to do that, and I’m very excited about it,” said Shotwell.
SpaceX is about to carry out the most ambitious test of its Starship vehicle to date. A full-size prototype of a Starship powered by three Raptor engines – of the six that will fly on orbital-class starships – will take off from the SpaceX test site in South Texas and fly more than 15 kilometers.
The 50-meter-tall stainless steel spaceship will then return to Earth and attempt to land on a block adjacent to the launch site at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
Company representatives, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, plan to have the spaceship ready for an orbital test flight before the end of 2021, followed by numerous missions to launch satellites, test refueling in orbit and finally plan cargo and crew expeditions to the moon and mars.
NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX to develop a spaceship variant that would allow astronauts to land on the moon’s south pole.
SpaceX is in the process of deploying a network of thousands of Starlink Internet satellites, raising concerns that the company could exacerbate the space debris problem.
According to Shotwell, the Starlink SpaceX program was “a great opportunity” to “learn our own lessons” about managing and disposing of space debris.
“We originally started this constellation at a much higher altitude,” she said. We applied our license to that, but when we discovered that satellites could be in orbit at this higher altitude for centuries or millennia, that didn’t sound very good to us as satellite outages will always occur. ”
SpaceX is now planning to operate its first 4,400 Starlink satellites in orbits around 550 kilometers above the earth. Earlier plans called for most of the 4,400 satellites to fly in higher orbits between 1,110 kilometers and 1,325 kilometers.
“There are missile bodies in the space environment and dead satellites in the space environment,” Shotwell said. “We asked to bring the entire constellation to a lower altitude so that the satellites would decay much faster and we would actually inject at a lower altitude. So if for some reason they don’t work well right after takeoff, come back to Earth. They separate, of course, but they basically leave their orbital positions very quickly. ”
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