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Space scrap the next frontier of metals recycling

Space is poised to be the next frontier of recycling as companies attempt to make orbiting round the Earth safer using recovered debris for re-processing in the heavens.

Scrap will act as the raw material feedstock for advanced manufacturing systems, such as 3D printing, according to Christophe Figus who is responsible for Airbus’ in-space manufacturing and assembly. ‘There are lots of old spacecraft in outer space now and there are different programmes ongoing to collect them and break them down into components ready for recycling,’ Figus says.

This is especially prevalent in the Earth’s low orbit, where millions of pieces of space scrap fly at up to 29 000 kilometres per hour, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States (NASA).

This orbital graveyard is estimated by NASA to contain 6 000 tonnes of scrap materials caused both by collisions such between spacecraft and the deliberate destruction of spacecraft via missile tests. The European Space Agency (ESA) calculates there are more than 129 million objects flying around Earth and any single one could disrupt satellite feeds for global positioning systems, mobile phone data or internet connectivity.

Airbus is planning to capture and transfer usable space debris for recycling via its 100kg RemoveDEBRIS satellite. ‘There are tonnes of metals such as aluminium in space which are not being used and which can be captured,’ Figus argues.

The plan is to use a type of harpoon to skewer debris and capture it for recycling. A deployable net will target debris of up to two metres in diameter and a mass of two tonnes. Airbus is also testing a drag sail to pull spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere, forcing it to leave orbit within eight weeks compared with more than two and half years it would take to do so naturally.

Figus says the ecosystem is still being mapped out with Airbus working on the sorting system to complete the recycling chain. ‘We expect to be able to perform this in three years and the sorted scrap will be melted and used at the same lunar manufacturing facility which has 3D printing capabilities. The recycling of space debris is complex because we first need to capture non-collaborative debris, recycle it, and then reuse it as raw materials for manufacturing.’

Airbus is also developing a metal recycling device which will first be flown to the International Space Station and start recycling metal parts before being used on the Moon. The development of such an infrastructure could be a big deal because it is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Airbus is not the only company exploring this market, with Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA already partnering with ESA to remove its first orbital debris by 2025. ClearSpace is developing a robotic spacecraft with four articulated arms to remove debris. Its first mission is to recover a 100 kg component left by ESA’s Vega rocket in 2013.

‘The number of satellites launched every year has increased tenfold over the past ten years to more than 600 a year,’ ClearSpace said in December 2020. ‘The rising amount of space debris is a growing threat to the future and safety of space activity.’

Recycling scrap metal is taking off in a big way on earth with the giant steelmaking industry switching towards using more ferrous scrap and metallics in the steelmaking process. This is especially so for production giant China where the government is increasingly stringent on pollutant emission levels and encouraging steelmakers to use more ferrous scrap as raw materials instead of iron ore and coking coal.

Paul Lim is Asia/Ferrous editor for Fastmarkets

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