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More than 500,000 pieces of manmade space debris—including spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, and fragments as small as flecks of paint—currently hurtle around the Earth at roughly 17,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, impacts involving even the smallest of those items can damage satellites and spawn chain reactions of collisions, increasing the amount of orbital flotsam and creating “minefields” in space that can remain unpassable for centuries.
A DARPA-backed small business effort broke boundaries for long-endurance flight this month by launching a uniquely designed, combustion-powered unmanned aircraft that stayed aloft for more than two days and two nights. The flight was terminated several days ahead of schedule because of incoming weather. But the craft—built by Vanilla Aircraft of Falls Church, Virginia—landed safely with more than half its fuel still onboard, suggesting it is capable of setting additional records for powered flight in its weight and power class and could ultimately offer important new capabilities to ground forces and others.