Scientists at the University of Surrey in Britain have unveiled a 6.6-lb. miniature satellite fitted with a "solar sail" that can be deployed to de-orbit equipment left floating in space.
Named "CubeSail," the 16.5-ft. square device can be fitted to satellites or launch vehicle upper stages to reach low Earth orbit.
More than 6,000 tons of debris is thought to occupy the space around Earth, the result of 50 years of space missions in which spacecraft are abandoned after missions are complete.
The problem? All that space junk -- it's expected to grow at a rate of 5 percent annually -- threatens the safety of existing and future manned and unmanned spacecraft. And no one wants any large debris dropping out of the sky, either.
While the university didn't detail exactly what space junk the device could shift, CubeSail is expected to be used in a demonstration mission in late 2011 showing that satellites can be de-orbited passively.
It's expected to be ready to move existing debris starting in 2013.
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Editor's Note: The original post used the word "sweep" to describe how the device would clear space debris. That is incorrect; it is a tool that would help guide decommissioned satellites out of orbit. The error has been corrected.