Trevor Laffan: A spring-clean in outer space? They can have my old cleaner!

It seems we’re not satisfied with just littering Planet Earth, but we’re determined to leave a mess after us in outer space as well, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Trevor Laffan: A spring-clean in outer space? They can have my old cleaner!

SPACE IS A VACUUM: A graphic showing the thousands of pieces of space junk that are orbiting our planet

IN 1797, an American farmer named Levi Dickinson used strong grass to make a broom for his wife. He lashed some of it to a stick, and it proved to be more durable and effective than previous models, so it was soon in demand.

It wasn’t long before Dickinson and his sons were selling them throughout the United States and for many years, they were a popular household item.

These days, our modern homes are a bit more sophisticated, with lots more furniture and plenty of nooks and crannies to be cleaned, so the humble broom isn’t always suitable. Thankfully, in the 1800s, the vacuum cleaner made its first appearance and that made life easier.

I do most of the hoovering in our house. I don’t mind it and I have time on my hands since I retired so it’s no big deal. I sometimes find it even mildly therapeutic, especially when I can take my time. But I’ve had tough times too.

I took a set against our last machine and we became confirmed enemies. Our relationship had been strained for a while, but it finally reached the stage where I began to hate the sight of the thing. It had a silly face on it that constantly smirked at me. I pulled it around the house by the hose, but it always resisted.

It deliberately got caught in everything. When I tried to go around a corner, it would wedge itself in the skirting board and it tangled itself up with the furniture at every opportunity.

The lead was always getting stuck under doors and, in a complete act of defiance, it would often throw itself on its side and refuse to get up.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

There was also a sneaky side to it. It always waited until I was reaching into tricky places or down behind furniture that couldn’t be moved, to do its worst. That’s when the tubing that connects the hose to the head, would fall off.

It only happened in the most awkward, hard to reach places where it was impossible to retrieve it.

No amount of kicking that machine seemed to make a difference. I often cursed and swore at the thing until I was bordering on cardiac arrest, but it continued to make my life a misery.

I came close to wrapping it around a tree in the garden a couple of times, so it had to go.

There was only ever going to be one winner. This machine was threatening my physical and mental health so, with that in mind, my queen and I headed off to find a replacement.

We hit on one of those cordless gadgets and decided to take a punt on it.

I’ve only had it for a short while, but the early signs are good. The fact that there is no lead to strangle the furniture is a big plus and the various attachments make it very adaptable.

As good as it is though, I doubt the European Space Agency will be rushing out to by one. They’re about to embark on a bit of hoovering, but I reckon they are going to need something a bit larger.

According to National Geographic, space junk is a huge problem and it’s only getting bigger. Hundreds of thousands of man-made objects are flying around our planet. Everything from dead satellites to errant nuts and bolts are putting the working satellites at risk.

In 2009, two satellites collided at 22,300mph, bursting into a cloud of thousands of pieces of debris. The culprits were the inactive Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 and an active U.S.-based communication satellite Iridium 33.

It was the first known time that two satellites had collided in space and was a startling reminder of the growing problem of space junk.

More than 23,000 known man-made fragments larger than four inches, which is a little wider than two golf balls, zip around our planet. But those are just the pieces large enough to track. An estimated 500,000 pieces between 0.4 inches and 4 inches join those larger fragments.

Space junk can impact other objects faster than a speeding bullet and can damage the many satellites, telescopes, and other objects orbiting our planet.

In 2006, for example, a tiny piece of space junk collided with a Space Station, taking a chip out of the heavily reinforced window.

The junk includes the stages from rockets that jettison satellites into orbit and the satellites themselves once they die. But it also includes smaller bits and pieces lost to space, including paint chips that flake away from the outside of devices.

The European Space Agency has chosen a Swiss company called ClearSpace to carry out a €120 million clean-up in 2025. They plan to launch an unmanned “tow truck” spacecraft into orbit. Using robotic arms, it will grab a section of a spent rocket that is now circling the Earth at a speed of more than four miles a second.

The tow truck will then drag it towards Earth, causing both to burn up in the atmosphere.

They hope the first ClearSpace mission will help to create a new “vacuum cleaner” industry to rid space of man-made debris.

I didn’t realise there was so much rubbish up there. It seems we’re not satisfied with just littering Planet Earth, but we’re determined to leave a mess after us in outer space as well.

Somebody has rightly called time on this sky tipping and wants to put things right.

So, it’s time for a clean-up and I’m happy to donate my old hoover free of charge. They’re welcome to it.

But I suspect it won’t be long before they’d lose patience and cut it adrift, to join the rest of the junk up there.

More in this section

Sponsored Content