The process would involve launching a specialized satellite that would rendezvous with the largest examples of space debris, like spent rocket bodies, and attach a small propellant kit that would nudge the junk toward Earth's atmosphere where it would burn up harmlessly, the BBC reported Tuesday.
The scheme could inexpensively remove five to 10 such objects per year of operation, the authors of a study published in the journal Acta Astronautica said.
"In our opinion the problem is very challenging and it's quite urgent as well," lead study author Marco Castronuovo of the Italian Space Agency said. "The time to act is now; as we go farther in time we will need to remove more and more fragments."
The proposal could face political problems, he acknowledged, with worries about such technology being aimed at orbiting objects that are obviously not junk.
"This kind of approach could be seen as a threat to operative systems; if you have the power to go to an object in space and pull it down, nothing prevents you from going to an operative satellite and pulling it down, so it's really a delicate matter," Castronuovo said.