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Boeing Proposes Using Gas Clouds To Bring Down Orbital Debris

Soulskill posted about 2 years ago | from the anti-space-station-weaponry dept.

Space 147

cylonlover writes "Boeing has filed a patent application for a method of disposing of dead satellites and other debris orbiting the earth by hitting them with a puff of gas. The method, which is still at the conceptual stage, is designed to slow down satellites, forcing them to re-enter the atmosphere without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of. The idea is to send a small satellite into orbit containing a gas generator. This generator can be a tank of cryogenic gas, such as xenon or krypton, or a device designed to vaporize a heavy metal or some relatively heavy elements like fluorine, chlorine, bromine, or iodine. This gas would be released as a cloud in the same orbit as the debris, but traveling in the opposite direction." Clever of them to patent this, since knock-off space-junk removal systems are in such high demand.

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147 comments

Let's just call it what it is... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561111)

A space fart!

Re:Let's just call it what it is... (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 years ago | (#41561645)

They'd have to use CH4 mixed with H2S for that, not Xe, Kr, F, Cl, Br or I.

What about the non-junk? (0)

Sqr(twg) (2126054) | about 2 years ago | (#41561147)

How do they propose to keep the non-junk from being de-orbited by the same gas? (I'm too lazy to read TFA.)

Re:What about the non-junk? (1)

wstrucke (876891) | about 2 years ago | (#41561183)

If you think about it the answer should be obvious.

Re:What about the non-junk? (2)

djlemma (1053860) | about 2 years ago | (#41561231)

From TFA:

The cloud wouldn't last very long, but long enough to hit the debris. By the time it hit, the gas would have expanded until it was almost a vacuum, so it wouldn't damage the debris. In fact, an astronaut caught in such a cloud probably wouldn't even notice it.

Re:What about the non-junk? (4, Interesting)

taiwanjohn (103839) | about 2 years ago | (#41561657)

This reminds me of another method using light instead of gas, which was described at a recent space conference. The idea was to pulse laser light toward the west (since most space debris is traveling predominantly eastward), and over time the photons alone could provide enough delta-v to nudge things out of orbit more quickly. For the big stuff they have other plans in mind, such as electrostatic tethers and micro-rockets. But for little stuff, the light pulse would be a cost-effective "shotgun" approach to deal with the cloud of crap that's too small to track.

Sorry I can't find a link at the moment. I saw it a few months ago on YouTube from either NewSpace or SpaceUp, or ISDC or one of the other conferences in the last year or two.

Re:What about the non-junk? (2)

dragon-file (2241656) | about 2 years ago | (#41561287)

How do they propose to keep the non-junk from being de-orbited by the same gas? (I'm too lazy to read TFA.)

Physics.

Re:What about the non-junk? (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561293)

Well, I tried to read TFPA, and IANARS (rocket scientist), but I suspect that they're able to get the math right such that they can target very specific areas.

Re:What about the non-junk? (2)

icebike (68054) | about 2 years ago | (#41561859)

Actually, for those sats that share orbits, this would be a problem, which is why they use a gas that would disperse in short order.

Presumably any sats that were not targets, but still close enough to the gas cloud, would eventually need a slight nudge to correct their orbit, but then that kind of orbit correction happens occasionally anyway. (One definition of a dead satellite is one that has no maneuvering fuel left to do station keeping [wikipedia.org] .). So if your satellite is still operational it probably would not be affected by the gas.

This ability to affect a large area actually works in your favor. You can deorbit entire debris fields with this technique.
However, some space junk deorbited this way could drift into conflict with low earth orbit satellites, like weather sats and GPS sats. So some planning would be necessary. And since the gas is designed to ever so slowly deorbit the junk, your ability to control this is minimal at best, because it could take years.

I'm glad Boeing patented this because they actually have the ability to deliver, whereas some patent troll could just use it to extract money.
I'd be happier if they just built one and and demonstrated it, and then offered it for sale. Even happier if they just declared the patent free to the world.

 

Re:What about the non-junk? (1)

cmarkn (31706) | about 2 years ago | (#41562089)

You've just described the flaw in the plan: who would buy such a thing? Boeing isn't going to build them out of the goodness of their heart. The people who put satellites up would benefit from clearing out the orbit they want to use, but that is nowhere near as simple as putting one of these sweepers into that orbit, only retrograde, because of all the different orbits of the debris that intersects it. It would be ridiculously expensive to try to clear one orbit for one satellite.

What we have here is an example of a tragedy of the commons [wikipedia.org] because no one owns the valuable space where satellites live. Perhaps an international consortium of space-faring nations could claim it all and put orbits up for auction, then use the proceeds to clean it up?

Re:What about the non-junk? (3, Interesting)

icebike (68054) | about 2 years ago | (#41562227)

Clearly the customers here are Governments.
One of the first orbits to be cleared would probably be around the ISS.

John Campbell of Iridium spoke at a June 2007 forum discussing the difficulty of handling all the notifications they were getting regarding close approaches, which numbered 400 per week (for approaches within 5 km) for the entire Iridium constellation. He estimated the risk of collision per conjunction as one in 50 million. Yet in 2009, less than two years after he made his prediction, his company lost Iridium 33 to a collision.
To date, there have been eight known high-speed collisions in all, most of which were only noticed well after the fact.

Re:What about the non-junk? (1)

morgauxo (974071) | about 2 years ago | (#41562305)

Unaffected?!? If it requires you to use your fuel faster your satellite is very much affected! Like you said, a dead satellite is often just one with no more fuel for orbit corrections.

Re:What about the non-junk? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561985)

I've read TFPA, while I am likewise NARS, it strikes me very much like trying to put out a gasoline fire by blasting it with water. You started off with a relatively minor problem, then spread it around and made it vastly tougher to fight. Also...

Combustion products would result from the combustion of halogen oxidizers (valence -1) and metal fuels with valences of +1, +2, or +3. Examples of the combustion product include, but are not limited to, calcium bromide, barium chloride, rubidium iodide, cesium bromide, indium trichloride, strontium bromide, boron tribromide, cesium iodide, beryllium iodide, aluminum tribromide, tantalum pentafluoride, magnesium iodide, calcium iodide, barium bromide, gallium tribromide, strontium iodide, indium tribromide, tantalum pentachloride, barium iodide, boron triiodide, aluminum triiodide, gallium triiodide, and tantalum pentabromide.

Some of these chemicals, that they're proposing blasting into space, with the intent that they then "fall to Earth" are on the "wash your hands after handling" list, to put it very very mildly. I love that they have strontium on the list, along with cesium... shall we assume they're going to use exclusively the non-radioactive isotopes of the various elements they're talking about SHOWERING THE EARTH WITH? Remember they're talking about clouds thick enough to arrest or retard the orbital motion of objects in stable orbits around the Earth, which then will somehow magically return to the atmosphere...

Again, IANARS either, but if the cloud is going to stay up for any real length of time, AND be in a position to intersect an object orbiting the other way, and also be hundreds of miles high, and somehow not fall right back down, it's going to have to keep up with the speed for that orbital altitude, in the opposite direction. Then you have a whole new problem, how do you get the cloud of gas out of space? Because the parts that don't hit the satellite will just stay in orbit themselves, but dangerously they'll be orbiting the wrong direction. If they're at the right altitude (range,) and going the right speed, they'll quickly end up being the next problem we have to deal with.

Spaceballs - the radar is ...jammed (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561159)

hahaha

And what do you do with... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561163)

..the satellite with the gas generator now that you have it up there?

Sounds like more space junk to me.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

dragon-file (2241656) | about 2 years ago | (#41561255)

..the satellite with the gas generator now that you have it up there?

Sounds like more space junk to me.

It would almost be better to make a disposable satellite that latches onto the target space debris and uses thrusters to slow both units down to a orbit destabilizing speed. That way the orbital debris is removed, and there's not another hunk of junk floating around up there.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561373)

Disagree; that's probably far more wasteful than one (or even a few) 'space garbage disposals'. From a basic physics perspective, you're then having to spend energy to slow both the junk and the 'disposable satellite' (requiring fuel, not the much cheaper transient gas cloud), and you have a 1:1 ratio of disposal satellites to junk. AND you have engineer something that can latch onto many different sizes and shapes of junk up there. It wouldn't surprise me if Boeing already considered that way, and came up with this (more ingenuous) method.

Re:And what do you do with... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561411)

Slowing debris down in the manner you have described is going to be very fuel intensive if you expect this disposable satellite to speed up to catch another piece of debris and slow down, rinse and repeat. I assume you aren't proposing disposable satellites for each piece of space debris.

Re:And what do you do with... (2)

icebike (68054) | about 2 years ago | (#41561575)

Slowing debris down in the manner you have described is going to be very fuel intensive if you expect this disposable satellite to speed up to catch another piece of debris and slow down, rinse and repeat. I assume you aren't proposing disposable satellites for each piece of space debris.

That's what I was thinking.
Just releasing the gas in the path of the target satellite would slow down or speed up your vehicle enough to require course corrections. If you were to have enough gas on board to do two simultaneous releases on opposite sides of the vehicle you might be able to mitigate this.

But simply getting to the proper place for EACH of the thousands of sats and space junk targets would take a lot of maneuvering.

This seems overly complex and subtle. Its main advantage seems to be that it leaves no debris in orbit.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about 2 years ago | (#41561453)

Docking with an orbiting satellite, especially one that's no longer under your control, is very difficult.

Re:And what do you do with... (2)

ddd0004 (1984672) | about 2 years ago | (#41561601)

That's the equivalent of having one trash truck for every house and then just driving it into the landfill instead of dumping it. Good plan.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

MachDelta (704883) | about 2 years ago | (#41561397)

Clearly, we would need to send an even bigger satellite to take care of the old one. And then a bigger one, and then a bigger one, until one day we make a board with a nail in it so big, it destroys the whole world!!
*Maniacal laughter*

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

icebike (68054) | about 2 years ago | (#41561615)

Who said anything about BIG.
The beauty of this approach is that the gas delivery vehicle need not be all that big to hurry the orbital decay of lots of dead sats and space junk.

Think of it as a tire spike strip for space.

Re:And what do you do with... (3, Informative)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561705)

Who said anything about BIG.

Boeing [uspto.gov] :

the cloud has a size of 50 km to 500 km, a mass of 1,000 kg to 10,000 kg

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

icebike (68054) | about 2 years ago | (#41562127)

Actually, the patent does not mention anything about the size of the delivery vehicle.

1000 kg is well within the lift capabilities of even the smallest launch vehicles still in operation [wikipedia.org] . Only marginally bigger than Opportunity Rover, which was delivered to mars by an Atlas V 451, which can easily put 10,000kg in LEO.

That is not big by standard of satellites in orbit.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41562439)

Dammit, icebike, I was just trying out some material for my Boeing/space junk standup routine!

Re:And what do you do with... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41562135)

Whoosh.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Rhacman (1528815) | about 2 years ago | (#41561425)

Easy, you just shoot it down with a missile. Any small pieces that are left over could be cleaned up with another gas generating satellite.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#41561485)

As long as it is still under control when it is at end of life you just have it shoot the last bit of gas out the side opposite the earth to de-orbit it.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about 2 years ago | (#41561613)

The correct way is to shoot the gas in the direction you're travelling so that you slow down, which is a full 90 degrees from what you suggest.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Jeng (926980) | about 2 years ago | (#41561779)

So you are telling me if the orbit was changed to being much lower and closer to the atmosphere that it would not end up slowing down and re-entering?

Aren't there stationary orbits? Couldn't you end up entering one by slowing down?

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Lithdren (605362) | about 2 years ago | (#41561851)

That's not how orbital velocity's work. You're not just hovering in space over the planet, you're in active freefall moving so fast you're traveling over the horizon before you hit the ground.

Frankly I never understood this very well either, untill I started playing the game "Kerbal Space Program". Suddenly, I understand why firing the gas into the direction you're traveling makes way more sense, than firing it into space to move you 'closer' to the earth. You're already actively falling inward to earth. All you'd do is slightly speed or slow yourself down, depending on how off center the gas release was. If it was perfectly centered you might manage to oblong the orbit slightly, but unless you had a lot of force, you wont deorbit that way.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

Antipater (2053064) | about 2 years ago | (#41561927)

So you are telling me if the orbit was changed to being much lower and closer to the atmosphere that it would not end up slowing down and re-entering?

Possibly, yes. Depending on where it is and how fast it's going, simply vectoring it "downward" might only push it into a more-elliptical, but still stable, orbit. Slowing itself down (i.e. doing to itself what it's just been doing to loads of space junk) would be more surefire.

Geostationary orbits are extremely tricky mathematically - it's not just about your velocity, it's about your orbital radius, too. There's literally only one altitude/velocity combination where Earth's gravity can keep you in a stable, circular, stationary orbit. And you have to be above the equator, too. Not much chance of that for something whose primary goal is intercepting other satellites' orbits.

Re:And what do you do with... (2)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about 2 years ago | (#41562045)

You enter higher or lower orbits by speeding up or slowing down. If you fire at right angles to your direction of travel you increase your velocity and end up in non-circular orbits.

Re:And what do you do with... (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | about 2 years ago | (#41561811)

1 have it shoot the payload so that the sat gets deorbited

2 make the sat just bulky enough to do the job (like one of those drink pouches only with more gizmos)

3 set things up so that your target junk hits the sat on the way down

4 put a sign on the side "free junk and wait for a "purple neck" alien to grab it

This is not a bad patent (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561173)

It's an apparently wholly new and unique method for doing something in the physical world. Why would it make them evil to patent that?

Re:This is not a bad patent (1)

Gonoff (88518) | about 2 years ago | (#41561461)

Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used. Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them. This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas until very recently.
Everything else had been patented.

If you want something to catch on, think "IBM Compatible" or WWW. Neither of those 2 ideas were patented and they seem to have been pretty widely adopten and further developed.

Re:This is not a bad patent (5, Informative)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#41561605)

Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used.

Boeing is not a patent troll. They actually make stuff. The obvious customer for this is NASA and other space agencies, and Boeing is a contractor. If they have the patent, they are the obvious choice as the contractor.

Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them.

Please don't use weasel words to make insinuations that you can't back up with evidence. Patents are public records. Can you point to a single case of this actually happening?

Re:This is not a bad patent (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561611)

Uhh, hmm, any evidence, or a punch of crackpots? By the way, the car companies have a huge financial incentive to use all gas mileage improvements, since it lets them sell more SUV's to fat Americans.

Re:This is not a bad patent (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | about 2 years ago | (#41561623)

If you want something to catch on, think "IBM Compatible" or WWW. Neither of those 2 ideas were patented and they seem to have been pretty widely adopten and further developed.

I dunno. Ethernet is patented. As is Wi-Fi. And they seem to have caught on. Cellphones are horrendously heavily patented since their inception, and they seem pretty popular. Heck, MP3s are patented to the hilt and back, too.

Many of the early PCs like the Apple II were completely open - they did have schematics and source code listings that came with the machine. So much so that when Franklin decided to clone it, new precedents had to be set so software can be copyrighted. It's why Compaq had to go to a lot of effort to clone the PC.

Re:This is not a bad patent (1)

mccrew (62494) | about 2 years ago | (#41561639)

Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used. Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them. This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas until very recently..

First, I'd like to see a citation for your "reputed" claim.

Second, the reason why we have not had alternatives for gas guzzlers is not for lack of trying. It's because the alternatives are not competitive from a technical or economic standpoint, neither of which are a direct result of being held back by hostile patent holders.

Re:This is not a bad patent (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41562263)

Because if you patent stuff that makes sure that it is not used. Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them. This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas until very recently.

Everything else had been patented.

If you want something to catch on, think "IBM Compatible" or WWW. Neither of those 2 ideas were patented and they seem to have been pretty widely adopten and further developed.

I don't want to come off like an ass, but you just couldn't be more wrong if you'd patented being more wrong. The conspiracy theory nonsense that suggests the automotive industry could make cars more efficient but doesn't because that would harm them somehow, and they've bought up patents so they could stop anyone else from using them is pure bullshit. The fact is there is only so much energy available per unit of a given fuel, like gasoline, and people don't desire to have automobiles that are much more fuel-efficient than what's available today, at the expense of functionality they've come to expect. You seem to like to imagine that the reason you can't get 85 miles per gallon of gas is that the evil automotive and petrochemicals complex conspiracy is stopping you.

It's not. They have vehicles that get 85 miles per gallon, you can go out and buy one TODAY, RIGHT FUCKING NOW. It's called a scooter. Some get even better fuel economy than that. Trouble is, there are a lot of people who prefer to be jacketed in steel, or at least aluminum as they rocket down the highway at 70 miles per hour, and are willing to accept reduced fuel economy to get that benefit, along with other perks like a completely enclosed and controllable climate, 4-10 speaker stereo systems, 8 way power, heated, and cooled independent bucket seats or a split-bench with similar functionality. They want the ability to carry close to a half-ton of cargo, between passengers and bags, and you just can't do any of THAT with a scooter.

As for IBM compatibility NOT being patented, you REALLY need to go learn the history of how IBM compatible computers or "clones" as they were once known, came to be. In point of fact, IBM tried to prevent that from happening. While I was alive at the time, I confess I wasn't actually there, but the way it was explained to me, (short version, ready... GO!):

International Business Machines Corporation, (IBM) was a company that made principally business machines, hence their name. Someone there came up with a really neat idea for how to try to prevent, how to TRY TO PREVENT... other companies stealing their ideas and benefiting from their research, and competing with them successfully because of having a much lower overhead in terms of R&D. (Just ask Apple, they'll tell you it's WAY cheaper to wait until someone else invents something, then steal it and polish it and add a gallon of liquid "cool" to it, and then just pretend you invented it yourself...)

The idea was that if you make it all open, using standard, commercial, off the shelf components, you can save a bunch on the design, and then you make ONE PART, some part that the computer absolutely HAS TO HAVE to work, and that you can keep anyone else from copying, and then write software to run on that computer that depends on that ONE PART, then even if they use the same off-the-shelf parts, and the same software, it won't work without copying that ONE THING, which is way easier to protect. How to protect it though... anyone can cut it open, look at it with a microscope, (or an electron-microscope, as the case may be,) and figure out what you did, make something that works like it, and then you can copy it.

As I understand it, IBM didn't even care about the PC, they just saw it as a chance to do this experiment in intellectual property protection. The question IBM asked was, CAN WE PROTECT OUR I.P. IN THIS FASHION?

The one thing they tried to protect was the Basic Input/Output System, or B.I.O.S. IBM-BIOS, if I recall correctly. The method they used was ingenious. Rather than trying to hide it from everyone, they BROADCAST IT! They printed up information on it and submitted it to various places, I think they even got it published in trade-magazines, etc. The idea was that anyone who saw the articles, schematics, functional block-diagrams, etc., was "contaminated," that is, they had unknowingly received IBM's intellectual property, and so could not make something similar without IBM being able to claim successfully that they had been "exposed to their trade-secrets".

The way this was overcome was a company, (Phoenix, if I again recall correctly) found people they could demonstrate likely had NEVER seen the IBM PC BIOS information IBM spewed all over the place, and put them behind a one-way mirror, with people who HAD seen the IBM BIOS. The sequestered engineers, (from India, I believe,) were given a list of things the chip they were to design had to be able to do, to replicate the functionality of IBM's BIOS. They could not be told WHAT TO DO, but it was seen as legally acceptable for the engineers from the US (or wherever) to tell them over a PA system when they could see they were going down the wrong path, or headed toward a dead end. Through untold hours, possibly days or even weeks, the team kept sequestered behind the one-way glass toiled until they had finally produced something, in the end, that could perform the same basic actions as the original.

This one-way mirror reverse-engineering, done DESPITE IBM, not because of them or with their help, is WHAT MADE THE ENTIRE PC-Compatible marketplace POSSIBLE. IBM's experiment was successful, in the way that most experiments are, in that they LEARNED something about the world around them. They learned that in fact you can NOT protect I.P. in this way.

Re:This is not a bad patent (1)

es330td (964170) | about 2 years ago | (#41562323)

Consider the car and oil industries. They are reputed to have patented all sorts of things to stop them.This is why we have not had any alternatives to fuel guzzling junkhepas (sic) until very recently.

Do you really believe this? If some kind of magical additive or technology existed that would allow practical cars to get 100 mpg do you really think the Chinese or Soviet Russians, who have shown our IP claims mean nothing to them, would choose to not utilize it and tell the patent holder "fine, take us to court.?"

I do not think it is logically consistent to honestly believe that TPTB can successfully suppress markedly superior technology to maintain the status quo to the level of no other country adopting its usage. With every auto company spending billions to develop "green" technology, if one company had something like that in their back pocket wouldn't they pull it out, if for no reason more than showing their superiority to their competition?

If I am wrong, please submit one example of a 10% improvement in efficiency or power that could be used but is not because of suppression by patent.

Re:This is not a bad patent (2)

rollingcalf (605357) | about 2 years ago | (#41562179)

The evil would lie in how it's enforced.

Unless they've already implemented it, it's possible that their solution doesn't work as specified in the patent. Then if somebody else comes along with a similar idea but different implementation (for example, maybe a different temperature or density of the gas) that actually works, Boeing can sue them.

The patent system has degenerated into protecting the results rather than the specific implementations, so somebody can put some words on paper for something that doesn't work as specified, and then sue somebody else who later makes a working implementation that accomplishes the same goal.

unintended consequences? (2)

wierd_w (1375923) | about 2 years ago | (#41561213)

What about the increased amounts of persistent drag that these clouds will present to later satelite deployments? Spraying the gas does not mean it magically disappears after it has done its job. While inside the roche limit, the gas clouds will eventually (after thousands of years) fall back into the atmosphere, the cloud doesn't magically vanish after being sprayed, and widespread use of the technology would make it radically difficult to orbit new satelites.

If used outside the roche limit, the clouds become persistent!

I don't think there is much debris needing deorbited outside the roche, but with politicians and corporations at the helm, you can't be too careful.

Re:unintended consequences? (4, Informative)

Baloroth (2370816) | about 2 years ago | (#41561261)

If the gas is sprayed at less-than-orbital velocities, it'd just fall to Earth almost immediately. Boeing in fact addresses that:

8. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created at a density and temperature to dissipate after creation and fall into the atmosphere.

Re:unintended consequences? (1)

wierd_w (1375923) | about 2 years ago | (#41561359)

"Almost immediately" in what respect? That the orbit of the cloud is very unstable, and begins spiraling in immediately, or that it is fired directly at the earth?

See, as deorbiting objects descend the gravity well, they speed up and compress. Especially gasses.

Widespread deployment of such a tech would result in the formation of a thin planetary ring of vapor. Rotational effects would channel the gasses into the ecliptic plane of earth's rotation, where slow deorbiting would compress the gasses as they spiral inward. This would have some nasty effects over time for space missions and for satelites that have to pass through the gas.

Granted, this would take *a lot* of gas up there... but if this becomes the method du jour of deorbiting satelites, and the rate of sat deployment continues to rise as it has due to demand, we could well see it happen in 200 years.

Re:unintended consequences? (1)

gblackwo (1087063) | about 2 years ago | (#41561455)

I'll trade space debris for a non-permanent layer of gas.

Re:unintended consequences? (3, Insightful)

Baloroth (2370816) | about 2 years ago | (#41561619)

According to the patent application, "within second" for extremely LEO (100 km) and "tens of second" for slightly higher orbits (~400km). It'll depend on the exact application, but the proposal makes it sound like they intend the gas to be "stationary" relative to the Earth, so it'll be in free fall, basically. Other situations they propose put it at ~1km/s, where it will de-orbit rather quickly.

It is very very unlikely to cause issues. After all, we already spray gases around in orbit, it's the single method we have of propulsion, and I've never actually seen a single person worry that it will create long-term problems (although maybe it could, I very much doubt it).

Besides, it's a lot easier to deal with transient gas clouds slowing orbits than it is with ramming into shards of metal at 10km/s or more. Shards of metal with explosives in it, in (rare) cases of unburnt propellant.

Re:unintended consequences? (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | about 2 years ago | (#41561659)

this may be considered a "non-problem" since the gas cloud might add 00.003% to the drag in orbit but it would be a lot easier on the stuff we WANT in orbit as apposed to several kilos/tons of random Hard Objects. (hmm bonus idea use a gas that will explode or otherwise create a "shockwave")

Vapour (0)

roman_mir (125474) | about 2 years ago | (#41561249)

It remains to be seen if this vapourware ends up revolutionising the market space of interactive cloud consolidation techniques. The question on all our minds is: will it ever fly? Will the flatulating satellites help to clean up the space and will it be able to remove the junk left over after years and years of crapshooting trash into the Earth orbit? Nobody knows for sure, but in case it can be done the appropriate measures have been taken by the industry pioneers, such as Boeing. No space will be cleaned of junk without Boeing getting a piece of that space pie.

Re:Vapour (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 2 years ago | (#41561375)

Cool story, bro.

Traveler players unite (1)

Sierran (155611) | about 2 years ago | (#41561333)

...sandcasters!

Clever of them to patent this? (1)

PPH (736903) | about 2 years ago | (#41561337)

Not really. Although there is 'high demand' for technology to solve this problem, the only customer is the government. And the government has unrestricted use of any patent it wants. Including subcontracting the equipment and execution of the task to any subcontractor it desires.

Re:Clever of them to patent this? (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561415)

the only customer is the government

Really? [wikipedia.org]

Re:Clever of them to patent this? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561673)

Not really good at picking up on the sarcasm, are you?

Wouldn't a nitrogen balloon cluster... (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about 2 years ago | (#41561355)

be safer, cheaper and just as effective? Assuming each balloon decayed (i.e. oriented itself with orifice pointing directly away from Earth and releasing a puff) within a set period so as not to continue to interfere with other traffic.

Re:Wouldn't a nitrogen balloon cluster... (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561447)

That sounds cool, I wonder if they'd also consider something like that. The immediate downside I can think of, though, is that it may be a lot harder to reliably position those balloons, compared with a space object with its own directed propulsion.

Re:Wouldn't a nitrogen balloon cluster... (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about 2 years ago | (#41561855)

You might be right about the positioning, but you wouldn't need too many of them if you know where the satellite was going to be. The reason I suggested this is that nitrogen is a lot cheaper and more abundant, so you might actually make the balloon bigger. Easier targeting and all that.

Re:Wouldn't a nitrogen balloon cluster... (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561949)

Yeah it definitely sounds worth exploring. Sooo, basically I'm expecting another /. article announcing gestalt_n_pepper's "balloon of death" patent application shortly.

Re:Wouldn't a nitrogen balloon cluster... (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about 2 years ago | (#41562019)

If they can patent the "Jaws of Life" then why not the "Balloon of Death!?" Great fun at parties too.

patent workaround (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561369)

1. Wait the required 17 years.
2. Use gas clouds to bring down orbital debris (including missing socks and underpants).
3. PROFIT!!!

Sounds like one man's debris... (1)

hsthompson69 (1674722) | about 2 years ago | (#41561377)

...might be another man's satellite.

My bet is that the first implementation of this is an anti-satellite weapon.

Re:Sounds like one man's debris... (1)

zlives (2009072) | about 2 years ago | (#41561669)

probably not since the response would be swift shotgun pellet sized

Re:Sounds like one man's debris... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561701)

That's PRECISELY what this is - a device to bring down (thereby destroying) satellites. It's just that the sales brochure says it's for taking out non-functional satellites (i.e. debris, dead devices, and other space junk.) Just because they don't comment on its uses against functioning devices doesn't invalidate or "warp" its purpose.

To use the car analogy - just because the salesman talks about your car's trunk capacity in terms of the amount of groceries it can carry, that doesn't mean it can't also be used to carry a load of bricks. It can, it's just not what he's talking about. (Besides, he probably had something bigger and more expensive in mind for that other job.)

Re:Sounds like one man's debris... (3, Insightful)

Chris Mattern (191822) | about 2 years ago | (#41561707)

Actually, probably not. That's the beauty of this. Shooting gas at a satellite might cause some orbit degradation, but it'd be tough to do something really nasty to it. This only works against small pieces of debris, much smaller than any satellite. Which has, incidentally, always been the most worrying aspect of orbital debris.

This is what patents are for... (5, Insightful)

Nemyst (1383049) | about 2 years ago | (#41561379)

Please do correct me if I am wrong, but this reads like a patent application that contains a novel, concrete implementation of an idea that isn't necessarily obvious to one skilled in the art. That is what patents are supposed to protect, and I have to say I have no problem with that.

It's perhaps the first /. post in a long time that contains a patent that respects both the spirit and the letter of what a patent is supposed to be. It also sounds fairly ingenious and very interesting considering the possibilities, so props to Boeing.

Re:This is what patents are for... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561467)

Boing is big industry / military-industrial-complex and per slashdot definition pure evil.

Re:This is what patents are for... (1)

rrohbeck (944847) | about 2 years ago | (#41561595)

Don't let Cory Doctorow see this.

Re:This is what patents are for... (1)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | about 2 years ago | (#41561821)

Sweet!

Re:This is what patents are for... (1)

admdrew (782761) | about 2 years ago | (#41561469)

Agreed. Doing stuff (reliably) in space is very tough and requires some really smart people.

Re:This is what patents are for... (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | about 2 years ago | (#41561999)

Yeah, but that just means that it has to be non-obvious to a much, much smarter group of people.

Re:This is what patents are for... (1)

Nethemas the Great (909900) | about 2 years ago | (#41562229)

While I'm not a huge fan of patents in general, I would have to agree. This one actually makes sense as a patent.

and your chosen subject is the bloody obvious... (2)

daq man (170241) | about 2 years ago | (#41561387)

This is such an obvious idea that it isn't right that it should be patentable. There are only a few ways of slowing an orbiting object down so that it de-orbits. The way nature does it is by putting gas in the way, called the atmosphere.

Re:and your chosen subject is the bloody obvious.. (1)

Progman3K (515744) | about 2 years ago | (#41561527)

This is such an obvious idea that it isn't right that it should be patentable. There are only a few ways of slowing an orbiting object down so that it de-orbits. The way nature does it is by putting gas in the way, called the atmosphere.

Stop bringing common-sense into this, dammit!

Re:and your chosen subject is the bloody obvious.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561891)

I'm from an aquatic race, you insensitive clod!

PATENTS GONE WILD! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561393)

How can you possibly patent something that is "still at the conceptual stage"? Isn't that just an idea, with nothing created or demonstrated? I have a thousand ideas that are "still at the conceptual stage". I will bring human progress to a standstill, unless you pay me a fee for anything you do that uses any of my golden ideas!

Re:PATENTS GONE WILD! (1)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | about 2 years ago | (#41561919)

Simple, you describe how your concept will work.

Proceed beyond the conceptual stage and determine if your concept holds up. If it does, congrats, your patent is valid.

If it doesn't work, you better hurry up and get a NEW patent because your old patent won't cover your now changed method/invention.

wait! (1)

freeze128 (544774) | about 2 years ago | (#41561401)

Newton claims prior art.

Boeing: No. 2 Government Spending Moocher (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561421)

Read about it here [usaspending.gov] .

Yours In Baikonur,
Kilgore T.

Enough with the over-broad claims guys (2, Informative)

jmerlin (1010641) | about 2 years ago | (#41561429)

4. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is relatively static and collides with orbital debris and slows orbital motion of the debris.

So basically we're claiming to patent inelastic collisions? So pretty much ANYTHING bringing something out of orbit by physically altering its orbit (which is almost always the result of an inelastic collision) will violate this claim. Broad much?

5. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud travels in a countering trajectory to the space debris.

So basically we're claiming to patent a collision between two bodies traveling in opposing trajectories? .. seriously? Yeah, I was totally planning on knocking debris out of space by throwing rocks at it in the same direction it's moving!

6. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud altitude is between 100 km and 400 km.

So basically we're claiming to patent clouds between 100 and 400 km above Earth's surface? Because someone can avoid violating this by.. you know.. ignoring the debris between 100km and 400km. Right?

7. The method of claim 1, wherein different cleanup zones about Earth are targeted, and a cloud is formed at each zone.

So basically we're claiming to patent clouds formed in different target zones? Is it possible to be any more vague?

8. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created at a density and temperature to dissipate after creation and fall into the atmosphere.

So your projectile that will collide with the debris will fall back into the atmosphere. So would just about any other projectile-based solution. It'd be pretty damn hard to hit an orbiting object with another object with enough velocity to knock the orbiting object into the atmosphere and ricochet the projectile out of orbit in excess of escape velocity.

9. The method of claim 1, wherein the cloud is created to have a shape of one of a sphere and a hemisphere.

So basically we're claiming to patent spheres and hemispheres of gasses. Looks like a competitor will need to use rectangles, because this is the rounded-corners patent of gas clouds.

But seriously. C'mon.

Re:Enough with the over-broad claims guys (1)

SternisheFan (2529412) | about 2 years ago | (#41561685)

A few years back I "envisioned" sending up a shuttle like garbage truck to clean up orbiting space junk. Any company who violates my vision must unilaterally pay me, in perpetuity for any other idea, since I thought of it first. Thank you.

And I do accept PayPal. :-)

Re:Enough with the over-broad claims guys (2)

noahwh (1545231) | about 2 years ago | (#41561715)

You're ignoring where it says 'The method of claim 1, wherein' in each of those sentences.

1. A method for removing space debris having a relatively low ballistic coefficient, the method comprising hastening orbital decay of the debris by creating a transient gaseous cloud at an altitude of at least 100 km above Earth, the cloud having a density sufficient to slow the debris so the debris falls into Earth's atmosphere.

None of those claims are general patents on physical laws. They are all specific to a satellite that puffs clouds of gas at space debris.

Re:Enough with the over-broad claims guys (3, Insightful)

chinton (151403) | about 2 years ago | (#41562373)

Of course he's ignoring segments of the claims... You can't produce breathless hyperbole if you include all the facts.

Re:Enough with the over-broad claims guys (1)

Solandri (704621) | about 2 years ago | (#41562375)

Given the patent trolling of the last decade, it's become clear that you have to patent everything you do, no matter how silly, simple, broad, or obvious. If you don't and someone else patents it, you could be sued for $billions. Even if you win in court, you'll still be out millions in legal fees. If you can avoid all that with a $10k patent application, it's a simple choice.

I hate to point out the obvious, but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561431)

without sending up more space junk that itself will need disposing of. The idea is to send a small satellite into orbit

Fail.

Useful? (1)

sociocapitalist (2471722) | about 2 years ago | (#41561499)

Given the cost of getting material up in space to start with, I'd rather see this 'space junk' mined / recycled / reused to build something else up in space, on the moon or somewhere else rather than bring it back down.

Re:Useful? (1)

Urza9814 (883915) | about 2 years ago | (#41562075)

Would probably cost more in money and energy to build, launch, and operate a vehicle to find, collect, and recycle all this debris than it would be worth. I believe we're talking about stuff the size of nuts and bolts moving at kilometers per _second_ in a sparse cloud surrounding the planet.

you fucking dumbass (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561507)

Frank Zappa thinks you're a jerk.

Prior Art (1)

t4ng* (1092951) | about 2 years ago | (#41561539)

I recall a plan from waaaay back in the 1980's of equipping the space shuttle with a high pressure water nozzle. I forget the exact details of how it worked, but it was something like the water would turn into a stream of frozen water particles that would hit the debris, absorbing kinetic energy of the debris as it vaoprized...or some such shit.

Re:Prior Art (1)

rrohbeck (944847) | about 2 years ago | (#41561625)

Agree. It sounds awfully familiar - not sure if it's from SF or "real" science.
There's probably some very careful wording in there that makes it "novel" somehow.

Re:Prior Art (2)

t4ng* (1092951) | about 2 years ago | (#41561675)

Found an article [wsj.com] referencing the water spray idea.

Re:Prior Art (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561925)

I love the comment about "techno-geeks who read science fiction and know nothing about space."

That's odd. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41561709)

The USPTO totally rejected my patent app for anti-gravity paint, without even reading it.

A puff of gas jetted out of the atmosphere without the rest of the atmosphere to contain it wouldn't stay together, it would rapidly lose pressure and spread out, much as the gas within a balloon when the balloon pops, only more so because there's no atmosphere around it to slow it or keep it from expanding. This is the principal behind the HEMP, high-altitude electromagnetic pulse, in which a nuclear weapon is detonated outside the atmosphere, (you know, where satellites are, since if they were IN the atmosphere, they'd slow down and crash to Earth or burn up?) and without the atmosphere to contain it, a cloud of gas and charged particles spreads out over a region hundreds, possibly thousands of miles wide.

The satellite or other orbiting debris would of course lose a little energy to the cloud of gas, but only to that portion of the total ejected gas which intersects the orbital path of the object, and would result in the object having an orbital velocity that is the weighted average of the velocity of the object before impact, and the velocity of the gas before impact, taking into account the probably vastly different masses of the two.

You might as well try to stop a bullet fired right at your face, at point blank range, by taking a deep breath, and blowing at it. Hopefully this is one of those things the USPTO will demand to see work in real life before they'll grant a patent. A much better solution would be to have a small rocket go up and actually collect the debris, or actually ram it while going in the opposite direction, slowing them enough to where they fall. Or, they could use a space-based laser... but I guess if you start putting up satellites whose purpose it is to knock other satellites out of orbit, other national governments might get mad about that whole "weaponizing of space" thing.

Let's all remember, before our collective panties get into too much of a twist, that a patent application and a patent being granted are NOT the same thing.

Patent without implementation (0)

bradley13 (1118935) | about 2 years ago | (#41561853)

Typical, stupid patent that just happens to seem cool because it's about space.

Patents are supposed to provide a competitive advantage. Has Boeing marketed this? No. Do they have any intention of marketing it? Highly unlikely. The patent office ought to reject the application with prejudice, and charge Boeing extra for a frivolous application.

Not to mention the obvious practical problem: If there is enough gas that stay in place long enough to decay orbits, the gas itself becomes another kind of "space junk"

Cloud? Useful? (1)

Giloo (1008735) | about 2 years ago | (#41562175)

Hey.. Not sure about that one, but it's been a long time since I actually felt that a "cloud" mentionned on Slashdot might prove useful!
But then I read it was about a gas cloud.. Not some vapor- oh wait..

"Clever of them to patent this..." (1)

John Hasler (414242) | about 2 years ago | (#41562187)

Yes, it is. It means that if the US government decides to do this it or whoever wins the contract to do it for them will have to purchase a license from Boeing.

Shortsightedness abounds (1)

jvkjvk (102057) | about 2 years ago | (#41562351)

"Clever of them to patent this, since knock-off space-junk removal systems are in such high demand"

If one does not think that the orbit around earth is going to be increasingly cluttered on is just not looking very far.

It is sad on a supposed tech and science site for someone to suggest that the clutter will not become a problem.

The refrain seems to be why patent anything that doesn't have immediate use.

What a crock of shit.

Space gyre in the works? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41562365)

maybe a big net to catch the junk?

Possible prior art (1)

mattr (78516) | about 2 years ago | (#41562411)

It is cool. Might turn a satellite into a cloud of debris, not a slower solid satellite.
But is it obvious, if you know astronomy, read manga, or just live in space for a while and try to stop debris with what you have on hand?

  1. From the DARPA zero robotics challenge, "RetroSPHERES satellites launched into a polar orbit to deploy micro dust clouds that can deorbit small pieces of space debris with high velocity collisions (ablation)."
    A "micro dust cloud" sounds similar to Boeing's cloud of heavy gas (a "nano dust cloud").
    http://zerorobotics.mit.edu/ZRHS2012/RetroSPHERES.pdf [mit.edu]

  2. Also recent news, but "The US Naval Research Laboratory is proposing to encircle the Earth with tungsten dust in an attempt to bring down dangerous space junk"
    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/423629/orbiting-dust-storm-could-remove-space-junk/ [technologyreview.com]
    IANAP but "Their scheme is to release some 20 tons of tungsten dust at an altitude of 1100km, creating a thin shell of particles that will entirely envelop the Earth," that sounds like a baaaad idea!

  3. ARXIV black hole paper: http://arxiv.org/pdf/astro-ph/9512101.pdf [arxiv.org]
    In 1995 these researchers modelled collisions of supersonic gas streams and found they are efficient at circularizing debris orbits.
  4. Coronal Ejection. Basically a gas cloud, IIRC it is known to affect satellites but not sure if effect is primarily electrical or is here also a physical deflection of orbital path?
  5. In PLANETES a space debris cleanup team deorbits junk in LEO, not by shooting it with gas but by pushing, sometimes with a gloved hand, onto a terminal vector. But their guns and bikes are gas propelled.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetes [wikipedia.org]
  6. In Moonlight Mile, which covers exploitation of the Moon, there are a number of scenes in which clouds of debris moving at orbital speeds cause tremendous damage. Not exactly the Boeing invention though.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonlight_Mile_(manga) [wikipedia.org]
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