There are many projects that deal with clearing the oceans of plastic waste, or finding alternative solutions to landfills... But not many trash-tackling designs have looked to space. ECAL graduate Timothée Mion took to the antenna stage during Dutch Design Week 2021 to present his thesis collaboration with a start-up called ClearSpace Today. He proposes a method of clearing debris from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in order to protect the satellites and equipment that are still performing vital operations in Earth’s orbit.
We spoke to Mion about his research, motivation and inspiration.
Are you particularly interested in space?
Yes, space and science in general have always been of interest to me. I’ve always liked to follow technological developments and prospective ideas on what it will be possible to achieve in the future.
What kinds of materials are floating around up there in LEO?
Most of the objects floating in earth’s orbit are debris resulting from large object collisions. These are usually old satellites, rocket parts or operational debris – like fuel tank adapters and other tools. We estimate that there are more than 130 million pieces of debris and around 34,000 large objects.
What kind of damage can the debris do?
It’s a big risk for the functioning tools and satellites in orbit. The ones that allow for weather forecasts, GPS technology, telecommunications, observation tools for space and the monitoring of our planet to understand and fight climate change.
What do you do with the collected waste?
For this first mission, the objects will be disintegrated in the atmosphere. Friction will burn the pieces up, a bit like a shooting star.
Who do you admire in space design, and why?
There are not many famous designers in ‘space design’ but privatisation of space exploration with companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin will lead to a shift in how we approach this sector. It will be similar to the democratisation of aircraft travel. To help achieve this change, we will need the eyes of designers. To improve the in-flight experience, but also everything around space travel and tourism.
Are there any other companies doing this kind of work?
Philippe Starck did a prospective design for a hotel in space and Seymour Powell has worked on the seats for the Virgin Galactic flight but other than that I don’t know of many designers in this field yet. It is still very engineering-driven, but it’s starting to change.
How do you think design can better be used as a tool for positive change?
I think the strength of a designer is to be able to analyse a problem or a typology with an external eye; to look at the bigger picture and think outside the box to bring innovative ideas to the table.
This kind of thinking should be used more often in unexpected contexts like ClearSpace. I’m really grateful they see the potential of design in their mission and that we are able to work together on this venture.
What are your design ethics?
I believe the objects you create need to be relevant to the world we live in. Today more than ever we have the responsibility to think twice before we bring another object to market. I don’t want to add to the noise. The object we design should be meaningful, intuitive and as sustainable as possible.
Should products always be ‘useful’?
I believe they should be. But I don’t only mean an object should be just a tool; ‘beauty’ is also useful. Beauty is the harmony of purpose and form.
How do you balance function and fun?
It’s always a really big challenge but I think that’s the job of the designer. If you can achieve both it means you’ve done your job.
What inspired your project CSTM.01?
So many things inspired my project. If you had a look at my research booklet, you would see that it includes pictures from 10 years ago next to things I saw yesterday. Being a designer is a fulltime job. Inspiration is collected every day and you don’t know when it will be useful but it always is.
Were you forced to make any compromises? What were the biggest challenges?
Well, you always have to compromise, you need to work with all the parameters and in space there are a lot of them. But that’s the fun part, trying to find solutions to problems.
What made you decide to study design?
I think the main reason I went into design is that I have a scientific mind and am quite pragmatic. But I also have a creative side and I thought that design would be the best way to express those two sides equally.