NASA Funds Development of Giant Inflatable Bag for Collecting Space Debris

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Unloading garbage from the bag to the orbital platform for recycling. Image Source: TransAstra / ThinkOrbital

NASA has awarded a contract worth $850,000 to TransAstra to develop a prototype of an inflatable bag designed to capture space debris in orbit. The company’s plans go beyond mere debris collection and atmospheric incineration. Teaming up with ThinkOrbital, TransAstra aims to establish an orbital facility for repairing and repurposing collected space debris into useful resources.

The concept of using an inflatable bag for collecting space debris was actually conceived by NASA as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission program, which involved transporting a near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit for study. NASA developed two capture methods: one employing an inflatable bag with rigid ribs for structural integrity, and the other utilizing rigid robotic arms. TransAstra, funded by NASA, is now tasked with advancing the inflatable bag idea from concept to ground-based prototype, and potentially, space testing if successful.

Bag demonstrator created in 2021

Smaller-sized bags will facilitate the collection of CubeSats, while larger bags can capture debris fragments weighing up to 50,000 tons. The use of these bags simplifies the process of cleaning up Earth’s orbit from dangerous debris. Bagging the debris won’t require complex orbit corrections or precise maneuvers for approaching debris fragments. The bag’s opening can be directed towards the debris, much like using a net to catch it. Additionally, the bag can be moved alongside the debris collector until it’s full, rather than expending fuel to deorbit each collected fragment.

The collaboration between TransAstra and ThinkOrbital has introduced a new dimension to the idea of collecting space debris using inflatable bags. ThinkOrbital envisions establishing an orbital factory complex for secondary debris processing. According to their calculations, storing and reusing space equipment can cut costs by a factor of six compared to transporting individual objects to lower orbits for rapid re-entry. Furthermore, reusing equipment reduces fuel costs by 82% and shortens cleanup times by 40%.

The collection of space debris using inflatable bags will involve the development of the TransAstra Worker Bee spacecraft. The “Worker Bee” will collect debris and deliver it to the ThinkPlatform. The planned diameter of the platform is 37 meters, with a volume of 4,000 cubic meters. The platform’s equipment will diagnose, repair, or recycle the collected debris.

The worker bee ship in action

“This study demonstrates that we can and should creatively rethink our approach to debris mitigation,” said Lee Rosen, co-founder of ThinkOrbital and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel. “It’s not just important for the advancement of space exploration and industrialization but also for our national defense.”

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Vasyl Kolomiiets
Vasyl Kolomiiets
I'm Vasyl Kolomiiets, a seasoned tech journalist regularly contributing to global publications. Having a profound background in information technologies, I seamlessly blended my technical expertise with my passion for writing, venturing into technology journalism. I've covered a wide range of topics including cutting-edge developments and their impacts on society, contributing to leading tech platforms.

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