Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 02/15/2012

Space junk to be cleaned up by Swiss ‘janitor satellite’

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Well, not for too much longer.

An artist’s impression of a CleanSpace One satellite chasing a piece of debris. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/Swiss Space Center )
The year 2011 was full of reports that space debris was re-entering the atmosphere and raining down on Earth. First came a 12,500-pound decommissioned satellite, which fell in the Pacific Ocean, then a mysterious space ball, which dropped on Namibia, and finally pieces of a Russian space probe crashed somewhere off Chile’s coastline. By September of last year, a report from the National Research Council said, ominously, that space debris has reached a “tipping point.”

But the ever-tidy Swiss think they have a solution to all the old satellites, broken rocket ships or other junk humans have left out in space. On Wednesday, Swiss scientists announced plans to launch a “janitor satellite,” designed, as its name implies, to clean up space debris, the Associated Press reports.

CleanSpace One, as the janitor satellite is being called, costs a hefty 10 million francs ($11 million) to build, but the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne thinks it will be worth it.

More than 500,000 pieces of debris are orbiting Earth, according to NASA. And that debris often travels at speeds close to 17,500 miles per hour — so fast that it can inflict major damage when it collides with a satellite or spacecraft. Those collisions only make for more space debris.

To be successful, though, CleanSpace One will have to be able to do three things — match the path of its targeted space junk, grab hold of the debris at high speeds, and then take the debris back into Earth, where it would burn on re-entry.

The satellite won’t be ready for three to five years, scientists said. But when it is, its first task will be to grab two Swiss satellites launched in 2009 and 2010. Next task: Track down those other 500,000 pieces of debris.

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By  |  12:24 PM ET, 02/15/2012

Tags:  World, Switzerland, NASA, space junk, CleanSpace One

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