Cleaning Up Space Junk
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. Sometimes, even the vast expanse of outer space gets cluttered.
JAN WOERNER: We have a lot of space debris also coming from old rockets, upper-stage satellites, adapters.
MARTIN: That's Jan Woerner. He's the director general of the European Space Agency. And he says all that space junk poses a danger to space exploration and to telecommunications that depend on satellites.
WOERNER: It is an infrastructure which should be clean because we use it. We need it.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Here's what happens. The junk whizzes around Earth in low orbit. And when it hits, it knocks holes in telecom and weather satellites. So the space agency and a private company announced a mission.
WOERNER: I sometimes call it a vacuum cleaner.
MARTIN: Trash collection in space.
WOERNER: It is very important that we take care of waste and we take care of the garbage.
MARTIN: The European Space Agency plans to launch a cleanup robot, a robot that will target a 220-pound chunk of an old rocket from a launch six years ago.
WOERNER: Has four robotic arms with which it will grab this space debris.
MARTIN: After latching on, it will then drag the piece of space junk into Earth's atmosphere, bringing it to a fiery conclusion.
KING: But there is a catch here.
WOERNER: Unfortunately, in this very first mission, it self-destructs.
KING: The robot also burns up when it reenters Earth's atmosphere. And the cost of this one-time mission...
WOERNER: 140 million U.S. dollars.
MARTIN: Work on the project begins next year before an official launch planned for 2025.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE JUNK")
WANG CHUNG: (Singing) I'm riding on the space junk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.