From Junk to Fuel: Addressing the Space Debris Challenge

Article by Amanda Jasi

Amanda Jasi talks to Gary Calnan about his company’s work on developing a forge for recycling waste metals in space

SINCE the space age began with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, humans have been sending satellites, as well as people, to space. These endeavours have allowed us to map Earth and establish GPS, to see more and learn more about space, and understand our place within it. But it also produces orbiting debris.

Space debris comprises defunct satellites, upper-stage rocket bodies, objects released during mission operations, and fragments from collisions or breakups in orbit. The European Space Agency said on 3 March that almost 30,000 objects are being tracked, though estimated that there are more than 36,000 objects larger than 10 cm, rising to more than 130 m, including fragments from 1 mm in size. Due to the high speeds of travel in orbit, even the smallest piece of debris poses a threat to spacecrafts.

We spoke to Gary Calnan, CEO and co-founder of CisLunar Industries, which is working to tackle the challenge by developing a forge that will be put into orbit to recycle recovered space debris into basic industrial materials such as metal wire, sheet metal, and metal fuel.

Calnan explains that CisLunar’s technology relies on induction heating, which has been understood and applied to manufacturing since the 1920s. “It’s just an inductive coil basically, that can heat up a metal that’s inside the magnetic field, and so we’re using that technology to bring this process to space,” says Calnan. He says experiments using “the same basic idea” have been happening in space for some time, and an electromagnetic furnace is on the space station currently.

“We’re taking that same technology and scaling it up from research purpose to production purpose.”

Gary Calnan: Presents CisLunar technology at the Colorado School of Mines

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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