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Science & Environment

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.