Satellite consultant outlines a way-out plan to turn space junk into lunar treasure

Orbital debris
A computer-generated image represents the main zones of space debris. The two main debris fields are the ring of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

What can be done with the thousands of dead satellites orbiting Earth? Some commercial ventures are hatching plans to get rid of them, but one expert has laid out a scheme for turning them into building materials … for the moon.

And the Blue Moon lunar lander being developed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture could play a part in the scheme. “The Blue Moon fits into my plan perfectly,” Keith Volkert, CEO of California-based Satellite Consulting Inc., said last week at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas.

The fact that Volkert presented his satellite salvaging plan at re:MARS doesn’t suggest that Bezos has endorsed the idea. But it does suggest Volkert has put enough thought into his seemingly crazy idea to win a share of the Vegas spotlight.

Volkert’s plan starts with the fact that there are more than 3,000 non-functioning satellites currently drifting in a variety of Earth orbits, mixed in with an estimated 1,950 satellites that still work. Some of those dead satellites are no bigger than tissue boxes, but others are as big as vans and weigh several tons.

The prime targets for Volkert’s plan are the big satellites that have been parked in graveyard orbits beyond the geosynchronous satellite zone, more than 22,000 miles above our heads.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff that can be salvaged from the geosynchronous arc,” said Volkert, whose 50-year-plus career in aerospace includes stints at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Comsat.

He argues that the cost of recycling what could amount to $20 billion worth of material in orbit would be significantly less than the cost of launching that much material from Earth.

Volkert proposes a four-part strategy for salvaging space material: Pick it up, park it, disassemble it and catalog it.

When it comes to picking up dead satellites, Volkert assumes that commercial space ventures will make use of the kinds of space tugs that have been envisioned for carrying payloads to the moon and other destinations beyond Earth orbit. NASA and commercial ventures already looking into the development of solar electric propulsion systems for such tugs.

“Once we get a bunch of space tugs … this whole idea is doable,” Volkert said. The transport system could work like a “space Uber” to carry the hardware from Earth orbit to parking spaces in lunar orbit. “They can float in lunar orbit as long as we need them,” he said.

Satellite disassembly would be handled by salvagers, working from moon-orbiting outposts outfitted with robotic arms and docking ports. Each satellite could be broken down into its components, ranging from big solar arrays and antennas to lightweight but high-value electronics.

Cataloging the wares could be one of the trickiest parts of the job. Space-recycling ventures would have to keep records of all of the hardware they have on hand, and there’d have to be “barcodes for everything,” Volkert said.

Keith Volkert
Keith Volkert is CEO of Satellite Consulting Inc. (Via Google+ / Radaris)

The inventory would include solar arrays for power generation, batteries for power storage, tanks and plumbing for storing liquids and gases, miles of copper wiring and tons of metal.

Blue Origin’s lander would provide the right-sized capacity for delivering the goods to the lunar surface when they’re needed. The Blue Moon lander, which was the subject of a big reveal last month, is designed to carry as much as 6.5 metric tons (14,000 pounds) of payload. “I love it,” Volkert said.

Volkert noted that some mission planners have proposed extracting metals from the lunar soil, or regolith, to use as building materials. “A better idea is to use the metals that we’ve just captured, and refine those,” he said.

Even the small parts from satellites could be recycled. “We’re never going to have to ship fasteners [from Earth] to the moon for a long, long time,” Volkert said.

Volkert expects efficient salvaging and recycling to become a key enabling capability for lunar settlement. “There aren’t going to be any city dumps on the moon,”  he said.

But he acknowledged that he still has to fill in some of the blank spaces in his plan. For example, there’d have to be international agreements on the conduct of space salvage operations, and a clear delineation of private property rights for salvageable hardware. Questions about such issues have been under debate for more than half a century. Now they’re quickly moving from the purely theoretical realm to the real world — and perhaps, real-world disputes.

“My hope … is that we can really address this question on an international basis,” Volkert said. “We can start the discussion. There will be salvaging in space, I believe. And if we don’t start the discussion and do this in an international forum, I think we’re going have a problem.”