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Company floats giant balloon concept as solution to space mess

Aug. 4, 2010
Courtesy of Global Aerospace Corp.
and World Science staff

A Cal­i­for­nia com­pa­ny is push­ing gi­ant bal­loons as a so­lu­tion to the grow­ing prob­lem of space junk in or­bit around Earth.

NASA es­ti­mates that over half a mil­lion ob­jects at least one cen­ti­me­ter wide, lefto­ver or broken-up space­craft parts, are cir­cling the plan­et and threat­en­ing to dam­age oth­er, still func­tion­ing craft.

Computer-generated illus­tra­tion of a GOLD bal­loon de-orb­it­ing a large ob­serv­a­tory. (Glo­bal Aero­space Corp. draw­ing against a NA­SA back­ground im­age)


Al­though the chances of col­li­sions re­main low, they rise with each col­li­sion that throws off new bits of fast-mov­ing junk, as oc­curred when Amer­i­can and Rus­sian com­mu­nica­t­ions satel­lites crashed last year. En­gi­neers ex­pect the costs to even­tu­ally spin out of con­trol un­less some­thing is done.

NASA ex­perts have ad­vised that be­cause round­ing up ex­ist­ing space de­bris is a po­ten­tially huge chal­lenge, the most real­is­tic near-term goal may be to fig­ure out ways to avoid cre­at­ing new junk. 

That’s mainly where Al­ta­de­na, Calif.-based Glob­al Aer­o­space Corp. sees it­self com­ing in. The com­pa­ny, head­ed by a form­er col­la­bo­ra­tor on NASA Mars mis­sions, pro­poses that each newly launched space­craft be fit­ted with a folded-up bal­loon that would serve to re­turn the de­vice to Earth af­ter its ca­reer ends.

Com­pa­ny re­search­er Kris­tin L. Gates, who has led NASA-funded re­search, pre­sented a pa­per on the pro­pos­al Aug. 2 at a con­fer­ence of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Aer­o­naut­ics and As­tro­nau­tics in To­ron­to.

When a spacecraft is de­commis­sioned, the bal­loon would be re­motely in­flat­ed, sub­ject­ing the craft to a greatly in­creased drag as it plows through the very thin, but not to­tally ab­sent, soup of gas par­t­i­cles in low-Earth or­bit.

Space is of­ten de­scribed as a to­tal vac­u­um, but Gates notes that there are enough mo­le­cules and atoms out to sev­er­al hun­dred miles to pro­duce a small but no­tice­a­ble dra­g. This slowly drains mov­ing ob­jects of mo­men­tum, caus­ing them to grad­u­ally fall. Up­on en­ter­ing the at­mos­phere, they gen­er­ally burn up.

The com­pa­ny’s patented tech­nol­o­gy, dubbed GOLD for Gos­sa­mer Or­bit Low­er­ing De­vice, is de­signed to ex­ploit this drag ef­fect and in­crease it by sev­er­al hun­dred fold. The bal­loons are so light and thin that they fit in­to a me­di­um-sized suit­case when col­lapsed, yet can ex­pand to the size of a sports field, about 100 me­ters (110 yards) wide.

GOLD is in­ex­pen­sive and “will re­duce the nat­u­ral or­bit de­cay of some ob­jects from cen­turies to months,” the com­pa­ny claimed in a press re­lease this week. “It takes a very small amount of gas to in­flate it in the al­most per­fect vac­u­um of space.”

Most eco­nom­ic­ally, the bal­loon would be at­tached “be­fore launch and de­ployed af­ter the end of mis­sion,” the state­ment con­tin­ued. But it could al­so “be at­tached to ex­ist­ing large de­bris ob­jects us­ing an or­bital robot.” And for large ob­jects that fail to burn up in the sky when fal­ling, “GOLD can be used to aim the re­en­try safely in­to an ocean.”

The drag ef­fect is predicted to fur­ther im­prove if opera­tors time the mo­ment of bal­loon infla­t­ion to take ad­van­tage of sun­spot ac­ti­vity. This, every 11 years, causes a three­fold in­crease in the dens­ity of air par­t­i­cles in low-earth or­bit.


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A California company is pushing giant balloons as a solution to the growing problem of space junk in orbit around Earth. NASA estimates that over half a million objects at least one centimeter wide, leftover or broken-up parts from man-made spacecrafts, are circling the planet and threatening to damage other, still functioning craft. Although the chances of collisions remain low, they rise with each collision that throws off new bits of fast-moving junk, as occurred when American and Russian communications satellites crashed last year. Engineers expect the costs to eventually spin out of control unless something is done. Proposed solutions have included electrodynamic tethers, gravity gradient-oriented drag tapes, boom-deployed drag sails or solar pressure sails. NASA experts have advised that because rounding up existing space debris is a a potentially huge challenge, the most realistic near-term goal may be to figure out ways to avoid creating new junk. That’s mainly where Altadena, Calif.-based Global Aerospace Corp. sees itself coming in. The company, headed by a former collaborator on NASA Mars missions, proposes that each newly launched spacecraft be fitted with a folded-up balloon that would serve to return the device to Earth after its career ends. Company researcher Kristin L. Gates, who has led NASA-funded research, presented a paper on the proposal Aug. 2 at a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Toronto. When a spacraft is decomissioned, the balloon would be remotely inflated, subjecting the craft to a greatly increased drag as it plows through the very thin, but not totally absent, soup of gas particles in low-Earth orbit. Space is often described as a total vacuum, but Gates notes that there are enough molecules and atoms out to several hundred miles to produce a small but noticeable drag. This slowly drains moving objects of momentem, causing them to gradually fall. Upon entering the atmosphere, they generally burn up. The company’s patented technology, dubbed GOLD for Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device, is designed to exploit this drag effect and increase it by several hundred fold. The balloons are so light and thin that they fit into a medium-sized suitcase when collapsed, yet can expand to the size of a sports field, about 100 meters (110 yards) wide. GOLD is inexpensive and “will reduce the natural orbit decay of some objects from centuries to months,” the company claimed in a press release this week. “It takes a very small amount of gas to inflate it in the almost perfect vacuum of space.” Most economic ally, the balloon would be attached “before launch and deployed after the end of mission,” the statement continued. But it could also “be attached to existing large debris objects using an orbital robot.” And for large objects that fail to burn up in the sky, “GOLD can be used to aim the reentry safely into an ocean.” The drag effect is expected to further improve if operators time the moment of balloon inflation to take advantage of sunspot activity, which every 11 years causes a threefold increase in the density of air particles in low-earth orbit.