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Satellite Launched On Mission To Remove Space Trash

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The world's oceans are polluted with trash. So is outer space, the final frontier and junkyard. More than 9,000 tons of trash are currently orbiting the planet, including old, decommissioned satellites, parts of spacecrafts and rockets, probably "Star Trek" reruns, too. And it's a problem, as debris moves seven times faster than a bullet, about 18,000 miles an hour. And when that debris hit the International Space Station in 2016, for example, it cracked a window. But on Monday, a space janitor called ELSA-d was launched by Astroscale, a private firm that removes trash from space. Jason Forshaw is an aerospace engineer for that company and joins us now from the U.K. Thanks very much for being with us.

JASON FORSHAW: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIMON: So is this some kind of intercelestial vacuum cleaner?

FORSHAW: Yes, effectively, it is. The purpose of it is to actually go up there and remove space junk. And ELSA-d is a kind of demonstration mission for this. And we're actually launching up a couple of satellites, one that will actually be the servicer to actually remove the junk.

SIMON: What does it do? I made the joke about the vacuum cleaner, but I gather it doesn't suck things up so much as it pushes it where the universe can take its course.

FORSHAW: Yeah, absolutely. So the actual vehicle doing the servicing actually has a magnetic capture system on board. And the artificial piece of space debris has what's known as a docking plate, which is a - it's effectively a magnetic plate. And so once we release the space debris, we can go after it. We can capture it, which is a very difficult procedure. And then we deorbit it. So we basically bring it back down, and it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere.

SIMON: If you got a contract to clean up all the trash in outer space, how long would it take? What would it take?

FORSHAW: Yeah, so I think it's important to note that it'd be a very, very difficult job to clean up everything out there. But what we need to do is actually target key larger pieces of space junk - so some of the larger satellites that have failed. And it's actually been calculated that if we remove several of these larger pieces every year, we can help to make the space population more sustainable again.

SIMON: The space population, meaning crafts orbiting the Earth.

FORSHAW: Effectively, you can think of it like the orbits around Earth are effectively like your highways. And you have cars going up and down your highways. And if your satellite fails, it's effectively like a car crashing. And, you know, if your car just crashes on the highway and you don't actually remove it, if you just leave it there, you can imagine the chaos that happens with cars swerving around you all the time.

SIMON: I got to tell you, Mr. Forshaw, there's a part of me that just squirms at the thought that we've made such an awful trash of our oceans, and now we're beginning to do it in outer space.

FORSHAW: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. Space is part of the world's global environment. There's ice caps melting. There's global warming. There's plastic in the oceans. There's lots of things happening here on Earth. And people need to realize that, yeah, we're trashing our space, as well. And we do need to take action to clear this up.

SIMON: Forgive me. I am an American. Is ELSA-d in any way named after the Disney character?

FORSHAW: Oh, no, it isn't. Actually, that was something we considered doing, talking to Disney about this. It stands for End-of-Life Services for Astroscale, and D stands for demonstrator. So that's where the name comes from.

SIMON: But I guess it is kind of saying to trash, let it go.

FORSHAW: (Laughter) Absolutely.

SIMON: Aerospace engineer Jason Forshaw speaking with us from the U.K. Thanks so much for being with us. And good trash-picking to you, sir.

FORSHAW: Thank you. It's a real pleasure speaking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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