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Swiss Space Program Targets Thousands Of Pieces Of 'Orbital Debris'

Countries pursue space programs for a variety of reasons — to communicate faster; to track the weather; to spy on one another; to prove they, too, can put something in space. Leave it to Switzerland to launch a project that has the simple goal of keeping things tidy.

As Global Post reports, the Swiss Space Center's CleanSpace One project is the start of an effort to clean up some of the space junk currently orbiting the Earth.

Over at NASA's Orbital Debris office, they estimate that there are "approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm" known to be in orbit. Those objects can endanger working satellites — and when they collide, even more space junk is created.

Enter the Swiss. They've only been putting things into orbit for a few years now, but now that they've gotten a look at the Earth's debris field, they've decided to do something about it — like playing Felix to the rest of the world's Oscar.

GP's Thomas Mucha writes, "In other words, they're planning to launch giant vacuum cleaners into space to suck up debris, and then safely send it back down to earth."

At the website for Switzerland's Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, the process is explained in more technical detail:

"After its launch, the cleanup satellite will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target's orbital plane. To do this, it could use a new kind of ultra-compact motor designed for space applications that is being developed in EPFL laboratories. When it gets within range of its target, which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it – a mission that's extremely dicey at these high speeds, particularly if the satellite is rotating."

Here's a video they made to help explain it:

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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