South Australian company Neumann Space has developed an “in-space electric propulsion system” that can be used in low Earth orbit to extend the missions of spacecraft, move satellites, or de-orbit them.
Now Neumann is working on a plan with three other companies to turn space junk into fuel for that propulsion system.
Japanese start-up Astroscale has already demonstrated how it can use satellites to capture bits of debris in space.
Nanorocks, in the US, is working on a plan using advanced robotics to store and cut up that debris while it is still in orbit. Another US company, Cislunar, is developing a space foundry to melt debris into metal rods.
And Neumann Space’s propulsion system can use those metal rods as fuel – their system ionises the metal which then creates thrust to move objects around orbit.
Chief executive officer Herve Astier said when Neumann was approached to be part of a supply chain to melt metal in space, he thought it was a futuristic plan, and would not be “as easy as it looks”.
“But they got a grant from Nasa so we built a prototype and it works,” he said.
“We did a live technology demonstration.“ One can grab a piece of debris, one can cut the debris open, one can melt the debris, and we can use that.”
Australian researchers are also working on the problem.
Saber Astronautics has won a Nasa grant to develop a drag sail, which will launch from a spacecraft at the end of its life and drag it out of orbit.
Sydney’s Electro Optic Systems, working with the University of Canberra, has developed laser technology that can nudge junk away from potential collisions, or towards the atmosphere.
Recycling the junk, instead of capturing it or destroying it, is another dimension again.
Astier says it is still futuristic, but now he can see that it’s possible.