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NASA awarded $850,000 to a company that wants to pick up space trash the old-fashioned way — with bags

Kelly Burch   

NASA awarded $850,000 to a company that wants to pick up space trash the old-fashioned way — with bags
  • NASA awarded TransAstra an $850,000 contract for its concept of Flytrap capture bags.
  • Flytrap bags could be built large enough to scoop up space trash the size of a house.

In the middle of a space flight, an astronaut heard a massive bang. He looked up and saw a piece of space junk embedded in the window of the shuttle.

If the debris had been bigger, it could have blown out the window, and the crew would have all died, the astronaut told Joel C. Sercel, the founder and CEO of TransAstra.

"Space junk is one of the greatest perils that astronauts face in low Earth orbit today," Sercel told Insider.

TransAstra was recently awarded an $850,000 contract from NASA to explore the possibility of cleaning up space junk with a giant "capture bag" that the company has dubbed Flytrap, Sercel said.

"It's kind of like picking up trash on the side of the highway," Sercel said.

Only much, much more complex and expensive.

Earth's backyard is a giant dumpster

As humans expand into space, we're leaving a big mess.

The European Space Agency estimates over 330 million pieces of space debris are circling the Earth. Space debris can reach speeds up to 17,500 mph and pose a risk to astronauts, shuttles, and satellites.

TransAstra's Flytrap bags were initially developed to capture asteroids that, in the future, could be mined for rare elements, Sercel said.

But the more Sercel and the team looked into asteroid mining, the more they "became aware of the space junk problem, and we thought this is a really good solution for cleaning up orbital debris," Sercel told Insider.

Giant capture bags to clean up the mess

TransAstra's plan is to use bags attached to small spacecraft that can fly alongside the space junk in low Earth orbit.

Once in position, the craft deploys the bag and encloses the space junk, zippering it in, Sercel said.

To prevent the bags from tearing, TransAstra is testing bags made from Kevlar and other strong materials proven in space.

While there are other proposed means of collecting space junk, they're often only effective on certain items, Sercel said, like debris that is magnetic or can be grasped by a robotic arm.

The capture bags, on the other hand, can pick up anything that fits inside them.

"We can build a Flytrap that could fit in a coffee cup and capture things the size of a watermelon, and we can build a big Flytrap that can capture items the size of a house that weigh 1,000 tons," Sercel said.

The biggest challenges

This approach to capturing space junk is "absolutely valid," Dave Barnhart, research professor in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at the University of South Carolina, told Insider.

TransAstra aren't the only ones with this concept.

The European Space Agency is planning an endeavor, called ClearSpace-1, which plans to use a similar approach to capture debris, Barnhart said.

Clearspace-1 is slated to launch in 2026. Similarly, Sercel said Flytrap technology could be used in space within two years.

The biggest challenge is fuel cost, according to Barnhart, who is also CEO of Arkisys Inc, a company that plans to build ports and outposts in space.

"To use one spacecraft with one bag to go grab a whole bunch of stuff is a good idea, but it requires a huge amount of fuel," Barnhart said.

Even debris items that are relatively close together are spread over tremendously vast expanses, he added.

So far, TransAstra has developed patent-pending prototypes and worked with a government entrepreneurial program, NASA SBIR Ignite, to prove the concept.

This year, it'll be building a full-sized prototype to fulfill the NASA contract, Sercel said.

"No one doubts the scientific feasibility," Sercel added. "It's the engineering feasibility of doing it affordably that has to be proven."

How to make it affordable

Ultimately, one way to offset costs could be to recycle the captured space trash to help build satellites and other objects in orbit.

"People paid lots of money to get it into orbit in the first place," Sercel said. "Anything in space is by definition worth a lot. If you can repurpose it, that's a win for everyone."

Barnhart, whose company aims to build space outposts, said recycling in space could be a reality within five to 10 years.

"Every single piece of the puzzle is there, but it's got to be created," he said.

As space exploration and industry expand, thinking ahead about debris will become even more important, Sercel said.

"Not leaving trash is part of being a good celestial citizen," he said.