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'Pac-Man' space probe to gobble-up space debris

The project is being presented as an experiment more than a longterm space trash service -- a chance to test trash-capturing technology.

By Brooks Hays
'Pac-Man' space probe to gobble-up space debris
A rendering shows what the satellite-capturing Pac-Man probe might look like. Photo by EPFL

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 6 (UPI) -- Low Earth orbit is littered with space debris. But if the latest mission by Switzerland's EPFL Center for Space Engineering is successful, space will be less crowded by at least one satellite.

The center is partnering with Swiss Space Systems (S3) to launch a "Pac-Man" probe as part of the CleanSpace One mission. The probe will be outfitted with a conical net that will capture a small SwissCube satellite before the two burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

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SwissCubes are a small toaster oven-sized, research-focused satellites similar to the CubeSats popular with space experimenters in the United States.

Having passed the requisite tests, engineers say the CleanSpace One prototype is space-worthy and ready to swallow a SwissCube. A tentative launch date has been set for 2018.

It's estimated that 3,000 tons of debris is currently circling the globe in low Earth orbit. A number of projects are currently working on solutions to the glut of space junk. While others have considered laser technologies and robotic trash-grabbing hands, EPFL engineers -- with the help of students from the University of Applied Science (HEPIA), in Geneva -- opted for the Pac-Man option, a mouth-like retractable cone.

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"This system is more reliable and offers a larger margin for maneuvering than a claw or an articulated hand," Michel Lauria, professor of industrial technology at HEPIA, explained in a press release.

While the Pac-Man probe won't put much of a dent in space's trash problem, the project is being presented as an experiment more than anything -- a chance to test trash-capturing technology.

But capturing just one SwissCube won't be easy, as the mini satellite's reflective pieces could confuse CleanSpace One's visualization system.

"It only takes one error in the calculation of the approach for SwissCube to bounce off CleanSpace One and rocket out into space," said Muriel Richard-Noca, head of the project.

Scientists are currently working to perfect the probe's sight, formulating algorithms that account for the SwissCube's speed, orbital path and relation to the sun's light rays. With the prototype phase of the project now complete, engineers will soon begin constructing updated versions of the probe.

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