‘Pac Man’ satellite to gobble up space junk

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) are drawing inspiration from an iconic video game character from the 1980s for an ongoing research project designed to tidy up the increasing amount of space junk floating in orbit around the Earth.

According to NBC News, the EPFL’s CleanSpace One project has been searching for a method to safely monitor, collect, and dispose of dead satellites not be re-entering the planet’s atmosphere in the foreseeable future, as well as other debris in low-Earth orbit.

On Monday, they opted to use what is being referred to as the “Pac-Man” technique: a spacecraft will be outfitted with a large cone-shaped net that will close once it consumes a satellite, similar to the way the old arcade game character gobbled up dots.

The clean-up satellite will be tested by capturing the SwissCube satellite, a small probe that no longer functions. CleanSpace One will be trapping the satellite, and once it is secure, the satellites will combust together in the atmosphere. The satellite could launch as early as 2018, NBC added.

Complex calculations required for a successful maneuver

Engineers from the Center for Space Engineering and Signal Processing 5 Laboratory (LTS 5) and their colleagues have spent three years working on the “Pac-Man” satellite as an effort to not only capture SwissCube, but other pieces of space debris as well, including projectiles travelling at speeds of up to 7 km per second, posing a threat to functional satellites.

It’s a difficult mission, according to EPFL officials. Christophe Paccolat, a doctoral student working at LTS5, said SwissCube “is not only a 10cm by 10cm object that’s tough to grasp, but it also has darker and lighter parts that reflect sunlight differently,” that can “perturb the visual approach system and thus also the estimates of its speed and distance.”

Likewise, project leader Muriel Richard-Noca said the mission is delicate, and that it takes just “one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space.” To prevent that from happening, the researchers have constantly been testing the visual approach algorithms that will be used by the cleanup satellite, accounting for a variety of factors such as the CubeSat’s speed and the Sun’s angle of illumination.

Michel Lauria, an industrial technology professor whose students were involved in the project, said the Pac-Man method of capture was selected because it is “more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand.”


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