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Private Company TransAstra Wants to Scoop Up Space Junk in Big Trash Bags

Trash bags work on Earth, why not in space?

By Cassidy Ward

Admittedly, the circumstances of SYFY's The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) aren’t ideal, but credit where it’s due, they did figure out how to build interstellar spaceships. By the time we figure out how to get to another star system, we might have trouble getting out of our own front door without tripping over our own space garbage.

How to Watch

Catch up on The Ark on Peacock or the SYFY app.

TransAstra, a private space company based in California wants to solve that problem with giant inflatable trash bags scooping up space junk in low-Earth orbit. NASA thinks it’s a good idea too, awarding the company $850,000 in funding to build and demonstrate a prototype on the ground.

Searching for a Way to Take Out the Space Trash

At present, there are more than 27,000 pieces of space junk being tracked and monitored, and those are just the pieces big enough for us to get our eyes on. There are an untold number of smaller bits shrouding our planet and the pile is growing more dangerous every day. As pieces of space junk cruise around our planet, they inevitably smash into one another and break into more and smaller pieces.

RELATED: A Real Life Tractor Beam for Cleaning Up Space Junk

Even small scraps of space junk are dangerous, whipping around the Earth every 90 minutes, traveling more than 17,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, even a paint chip can act like a shotgun blast on an unsuspecting spacecraft. Getting control of the space junk problem is critical for our continued operations in near-Earth space.

TransAstra’s extraterrestrial trash pickup program was originally designed for NASA’s cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The plan was to use a bag with inflatable support structures to gather an asteroid sample and return it to Earth. When the mission was cancelled, the company realized it could use the same technology to gather space junk samples, as it were, closer to home.

A Full-Service Recycling Plant in Space

Debri is imagined floating above the Earth's atmosphere in space

If TransAstra makes it beyond ground tests and into orbit, the plan is to launch their bag and inflate it in orbit. As the arms inflate, the bag will open up before cruising around in low-Earth orbit looking for trash to scoop up.

The bags are intended to grab multiple pieces of space junk in a single trip, before filling up. A standard bag could snag a couple of small cube sats while a larger bag could be used to pick up spent rocket stages.

The bags themselves won’t have any propulsion systems for moving around, but they’ll be paired up with TransAstra’s Worker Bee Tug Boat, capable of ferrying cargo (trash or otherwise) using the company’s Omnivore solar thermal rocket engines.

RELATED: Secret Russian satellite broke up in orbit, creating debris field that could last a century

The conventional plan for recovered space junk has been to push it into a safer orbit, either higher and out of the way, or lower and into the atmosphere where it would burn up. TransAstra has a different plan. Instead of burning our space trash, they want to gather it up and take it to orbiting recycling plants equipped with tools for inspecting, repairing, and recycling whatever their trash bags scoop up.

The company says operating this way would reduce fuel costs by preventing as many back and forth trips and recovered materials that could be used for in-space manufacturing, taking advantage of materials already off-planet. Whether their trash bags ever get into the air remains to be seen, but we’re in favor of anything that cleans up the litter we’ve dropped all over our planetary front stoop.

Catch the complete first season of The Ark streaming now on Peacock!