Wikipedia writes to say

Currently, about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm (2.0 in) are tracked, with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude. For comparison, the International Space Station orbits in the 300–400 km range and both the 2009 collision and 2007 antisat test events occurred at between 800 and 900 km.

So there is some debris out there - most of it unused artifacts. As definitions go, it is debris because it is not in active use. As most users on this site may be aware - the amount of debris is approaching the point we are concerned about it. This is reflected by questions on the subject on this very site.

This and this and this - and others. In fact there is a whole tag devoted to debris! The thing is ... what do we do about it? A commonly suggested option is to burn it

What I have in mind may be considered naïve, half-baked uh ... lots of adjectives, and adverbs may be here used. There may be logistical issues, and practical problems with the idea - some of which I hope to see in the replies to this post.

Anyway, here goes - debris put to use becomes an asset. After all we have discussed orbital assembly some on this site.

Not part of the main question, but perhaps the module, depending upon what we get, (after all, form isn't relevant to space travel at our present level of technology) could be provided with fuel, and other necessary artifacts to augment Icarus.

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    $\begingroup$ Not a complete answer, but there's a number of articles out there about re-using the space-shuttle's external tank. The large hollow structure is rather attractive as a habitat. permanent.com/ext-tank.htm $\endgroup$
    – john3103
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ As another note, orbital "debris" contains half a ton of highly enriched Uranium, space4peace.org/ianus/npsm3.htm and while it's not useful for a habitat, it is as an energy source, and it actually unparalleled by what you can legally get on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – AlanSE
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ @john3103: At the moment I'm interested in getting an unmanned craft out of the stuff in orbit (+: but between you & Alan, you've given me an idea for another question $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Matching velocities would be a large drain on resources (propellant, etc.) if you wanted this done in a 'reasonable' amount of time. The wisest course of action may be to launch a large number of katamari-type satellites that match orbit with high-value debris, accelerate to the 'assembly' orbit, and eventually build enough of a material base to bother lifting a space factory of some sort. Give the katamaris 5-20 years and Earth may have a ring or even a tiny moon. $\endgroup$
    – Art Taylor
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 7:40
  • $\begingroup$ If you ever want to get a sci-fi take on this idea or the general premise, I recommend reading Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves". It's hard sci-fi that is basically devoted to space debris and chaotic events. Just a thought... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 3:29

3 Answers 3


The debris ranges from complete, defunct satellites to flecks of paint. Satellites are put into a graveyard orbit or deorbited at the end of their lives, so they're not a concern. That leaves random crap (bits of insulation etc. coming off during stage separation, and the wreckage of a couple of collisions), which would have to be reduced to raw material to be useful again. See @Pearson's answer.

That leaves the defunct satellites. They have been decommissioned usually because their useful life is over due to malfunctioning components etc. Once their power supply fails and the interior can no longer be kept warm at night, they're subject to huge thermal cycles which quickly break all sorts of components.
This means that at best, you have individual systems that could possibly be reused. You'd have to disassemble the entire satellite, test everything for cracks, etc. You're effectively building a new satellite, with the added difficulty of having to build it in zero gravity.

Consider a famous example of a satellite being reused: the Hubble telescope. The servicing missions extended Hubble's lifetime, but at such a huge cost that we could have launched a new telescope for the cost of one or two servicing missions.


They could be, in theory. Let's talk about some of the levels by which this could be done:

  1. If you had the right equipment, you could melt it and create whatever you wanted. However, if you are just using it a raw resources, why not go to an asteroid?
  2. If you want to use some of the resources as is, you could probably have some use. What would it take? Well, you might get something like solar cells, but they usually are fairly cheap, and as a whole, not that difficult to launch. More complex things would be difficult to re-use in orbit, but some things could.
  3. Large structures have been discussed. The ISS could no doubt be in large part recovered, for instance. Tanks have been discussed for a habitat, as @john3103 mentioned.
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    $\begingroup$ Like a lot of things in the space-realm, it's possible, but it's really hard. Which is why we don't generally do it. $\endgroup$
    – john3103
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ @john3103: Really hard, and there's easier ways to do the same thing. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 22:47

Legally, this would be outlawed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, as well as the "daughter" treaties which dictate ownership of space objects. There is currently no law of salvage in space, such as there is on the earth's oceans. Whatever is launched belongs to the launching country or launch provider unless specifically given to a third party. So, even if this is a theoretically possible construction, which it would be given a huge amount of fuel, there would still be the ownership of the space junk to overcome. If a piece of space junk can be point sourced, then ownership can always be determined. I have a feeling that this current legal structure will stand until someone is brazen enough to actually get up there and start collecting.


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