Librarian’s idea to clean up space debris sparks NASA, international interest

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

A Portales librarian is stepping into the scientific world of outer space.

Sean Shepherd, Eastern New Mexico University Instructional Research Center coordinator, is developing devices to clean up small manmade space debris in the lower earth orbit.

“I feel like since we made this mess, we should clean it up by bringing it back to earth, not pushing it out into space,” Shepherd said.

The space debris — which at the lower orbit is composed of objects such as paint chips and bolts — travels at high speeds, can damage space craft and sometimes falls to Earth, Shepherd said. He said collisions split the debris into more dangerous pieces.

“It’s really a hazardous problem now,” Shepherd said.

A number of years ago, Shepherd said, he saw a video about space debris and was disgusted that people had “trashed space that way.” The catalyst to his project, though, came last fall as an article about collisions between satellites creating more debris.

Shepherd said the idea of his Adhesive Synthetic Trash Recovery Orbital Spheres popped into his head, and he developed the concept in his mind for about a week.

“And basically they’re large, room-sized metallic foam balls surrounded by space-friendly adhesive,” Shepherd said.

The light-weight ASTROS would be launched into space to collide with the trash, which would stick, he said. After the ball collected around 30 items, it would deploy a solar sail and, guided by remote control, return to the atmosphere to burn up, according to Shepherd’s concept.

Shepherd e-mailed Nicholas Johnson at NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. Johnson asked for an abstract, saying the idea was inexpensive and practical, Shepherd said.

Later, Shepherd received an invitation to present at the first International Orbital Debris Removal Conference in Virginia this past December.

“I was the only one there that wasn’t a scientist,” Shepherd said.

ASTROS was the cheapest idea, he said, and several scientists complimented the concept.

“The problem is, it’s not actually built yet,” Shepherd continued.

He’s working at “a snail’s pace” to develop the concept while holding his job at the library and operating without a laboratory or advanced training in math or physics.

Shepherd said he gets about a call a week from people as far away as Germany asking about using his idea, but they’ve made no agreements.

“I’m hoping somebody will just use the concept and make it happen,” Shepherd said.