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March 31st, 2009

Aerogel – Universe’s largest catcher’s mitt?

Published on March 31st, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org
Objects in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: ESA.

Objects in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: ESA.

Practicing to use this “mitt” might be a little dicey, but apparently this is a serious proposal. Note, the conference referenced below is the Fifth European Conference on Space Debris hosted by the European Space Agency.

From the transcript of a broadcast by the Australia/ABC-produced World Today:

ELEANOR HALL: Scientists are warning that there’s now so much junk in space that it’s posing a risk to astronauts.

Space scientists are meeting this week in Germany to discuss ways of dealing with the debris problem that they say is so severe that near-Earth flights could soon become too dangerous.

As Barbara Miller reports, the meeting comes just weeks after two satellites crashed into one another over Siberia.

BARBARA MILLER: There are thousands of bits of debris in space and even the smallest can cause significant damage.

[ . . . ]

Kerry Doherty is the Curator of Space Technology at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

BARBARA MILLER: Other possible solutions still sound a little like science fiction.

KERRY DOHERTY: There’ve been various proposals, including actually putting up into orbit large blocks of aerogel, which is an amazingly light substance – it’s actually the lightest solid, the least dense solid known.

And this, supposedly you place it in an orbital location where it can actually attach pieces of space debris in its structure, and then be itself de-orbited.

BARBARA MILLER: So it would almost be like a huge blob of jelly which would go around collecting bits of debris?

KERRY DOHERTY: More like… putting a pad of something directly in the path of the space debris, so in the orbital path, and these things will just block into it, and be captured by the material.

Kind of like a giant catcher’s mitt.

Audio of full segment is here.

Adding that, yes, aerogel has already been used with satellites to catch the dust and other materials around comets, but the aerogel in this context would have to be more backstop than filter.


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