Airbus goes full Ahab with satellite skewering harpoon

Space junk is becoming a big problem around our planet. As more and more satellites go into orbit, orbiting debris and derelict satellites pose a risk to manned space missions and critical satellites in orbit. Airbus has a plan to help get rid of space junk and old satellites using a harpoon.

The harpoon projectile is a meter long and would be attached via a strong tether to a chase spacecraft. Once the target debris or satellite was skewered and under control, that chase spacecraft would drag its prey into the atmosphere where it would burn up in reentry.

If you are wondering how big a problem space junk really is, about 20,000 items that are 10cm or larger being tracked currently. The harpoon was designed to be able to capture some of the largest of those bits, including the defunct European Envisat Earth observation platform.

Harpoon project manager Alastair Wayman says that if the harpoon can handle Envisat, it can handle other types of derelict spacecraft including rocket upper stages that are still in orbit. In testing, the Harpoon has been fired using compressed air into panels representing materials that satellites are constructed out of.

Those panels are normally in the range of 3cm thick composite honeycombs with lots of aluminum. The harpoon is said to go through those panels "like a hot knife through butter." When the tip of the harpoon pierces the skin, barbs open to stop it from slipping out. A smaller version of the harpoon will be tested on a mission launching next month called RemoveDebris. This sort trash cleanup isn't without risks, care will have to be taken to avoid any pressurized tanks aboard spacecraft lest the satellites explode and become an even bigger hazard.