Researchers want to build a space station to recycle junk in Earth’s orbit

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There are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. If you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1cm in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth’s orbit.

These numbers are likely to be underestimates. With more satellites and rockets launching each year, collisions with space junk are becoming more likely. Losing a satellite could mean your TV reception is poor or the weather forecast is a bit less reliable. But it could also mean aeroplanes can’t navigate properly and people aren’t made aware of a tornado that’s bearing down towards them.

A long-term solution is needed to clean up space. The Gateway Earth Development Group is a collection of academics from universities around the world who propose turning this potential catastrophe into a resource. By 2050, Gateway Earth – a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other junk – could be up and running.

Earth’s orbits

There are two main orbits that satellites exist in. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is about 200 km to 1,000 km above the Earth and is where the International Space Station orbits the planet every 90 minutes, along with thousands of other satellites. At 36,000 km, the forces acting on satellites cause them to stay in the same place within their orbit. This is called Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). Satellites here are stationary above a single point on Earth, making them useful for weather forecasting and communications.