- Ali Sundermier
Ten-year-olds Oliver Blaise and Leonard Gu aren’t really sure what they want to be when they grow up.
“I might want to be a scientist,” Gu said as he held up a spacecraft made of Legos that he and Blaise designed.
The two boys created the spacecraft for ExploraVision, a Toshiba-sponsored project carried out by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).
ExploraVision is the world’s largest science competition for K-12 students. It challenges children to envision the technology of the future. The spacecraft earned Blaise and Gu first place in the competition’s grade 4-6 category. The boys each received a savings bond worth $10,000 for their invention.
They call it the Hubble NEST (Next Elimination of Space Trash). It’s goal: To rid the world of space junk orbiting the planet.
“We both really like space and we were concerned with trash on Earth,” Blaise said. “That sort of brought us to space trash. It’s a serious problem and nothing is being done about it.”
Space trash, or debris, consists of defunct spacecrafts and satellites, abandoned rocket stages, and fragments created from erosion, disintegration, and collisions. NASA is currently tracking more than 500,000 pieces of debris that are the size of a marble or larger, orbiting Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 mph.
And according to NASA, there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. And that’s not including the millions of pieces of debris that are too small to be tracked.
Because they travel so fast, even tiny paint flecks hurtling through space can damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
At first, Blaise and Gu thought about using a net of spider silk and carbon nanotubes stretched between two towers to catch the junk.
“But there’s no guarantee it will hit the net,” Gu said. “It might hit the towers and damage them.”
So, naturally, they moved onto lasers. But even that idea had some issues.
“We know we can disintegrate things,” Gu said. “But if the laser hits a large piece of space junk, it’s just going to break up into more.”
Finally the two young innovators moved onto the Hubble NEST.
“At that time, we learned that NASA was going to decommission the Hubble Space Telescope in literally two years,” Gu said. “We both are fascinated by the Hubble, and we love space, so we don’t want NASA to decommission it. We thought: Instead of taking a new spaceship to space, let’s recycle this and reuse it and that’s going to save some money.”
The concept is pretty simple: Repurpose the Hubble Space Telescope into a spacecraft that will seek out and eliminate space trash. But there was a major drawback to this plan. The Hubble isn’t outfitted with any propellants, so it can’t move forward on its own.
So Blaise and Gu decided to pair the Hubble with a flock of flying robots called “sparrow drones.”
The Hubble will communicate with these drones, which will be controlled by pilots on Earth, and tell them where the trash is.
Then, the drones will fly in and grab the space trash, either with “beaks,” or, if the space trash is abnormally large, with claws or suction cups.
If the space trash is valuable, the drones will carry it down to Earth. If not, they will burn it up in the atmosphere.
Blaise and Gu said that while designing the spacecraft was actually pretty easy, the research was the hardest part. That’s because right now, Blaise said, nothing is actively being done about the problem of space trash.
“Literally nothing,” he said. “Nada. Just a bunch of ideas.”
So even if Blaise and Gu aren’t certain what they want to be when they grow up just yet, the world could certainly use creative thinkers like them to go into science. And Exploravision might just give them a nudge in the right direction.
“It taught me a lot about space that I don’t think I would have learned if I didn’t do this,” Blaise said.