Spaceplanes may be the best hope in war on deadly orbiting junk

Promising technologies to get rid of dangerous space debris are gathering speed. The sooner we put them to the test the better, says Paul Marks

After the party, there’s always the cleanup to take care of. It’s no different in space. Earth orbit is littered with derelict satellites, dead rockets and fragments of both that really ought to be tidied up – pushed into the atmosphere to safely incinerate.

The number of countries launching satellites has risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Of the 4300 currently in orbit, only 1200 still work and some of the rest are in pieces, following collisions and fuel or battery explosions. The result is that there are now 29,000 objects wider than 10 centimetres whizzing around our planet. That’s in addition to the millions of smaller fragments of potentially lethal, fast-moving junk obstructing the space lanes.

But we still have no proven way of capturing and