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Cleaning Up Space Junk


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.


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.


WANG CHUNG: (Singing) I'm riding on the space junk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.