RemoveDEBRIS mission uses nets, harpoons to take down space junk

Space debris is a threat to future missions, but no ideal solution for cleaning it up has been developed. A new mission called RemoveDEBRIS may help change that, with the team behind it saying this is one of the first ever "concrete steps" toward eliminating the refuse. Among other things, RemoveDEBRIS works by capturing space junk using a harpoon and net, ultimately dragging it down into the atmosphere where it will burn up.

RemoveDEBRIS is called an Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission, one intended to demonstrate the technologies developed by multiple space companies. The European Commission is funding RemoveDEBRIS, which is being led by the University of Surrey. The launch happened on April 2 from the Kennedy Space Center, with the destination being the ISS. A demonstration of the technology is presented in the video below.

The system is being sent to the International Space Station packed into boxes that astronauts will unpack upon arrival. The equipment is installed on to a slide table that is then shuttled into the Japanese module on the ISS. From there, a robotic arm moves the entire platform outside into space, releasing it in a "very specific direction," according to the Surrey team.

The mission to tackle space debris officially starts at that time. The team has several experiments in the pipeline, including a harpoon and drag sail demonstration (as shown in the video above). Another capture method involves a net, which is ejected into space toward the debris. When the net hits its target, it wraps around it and becomes tangled, effectively capturing the space junk. Winches then activate to reel the net in to keep it from opening back up.

After that, the CubeSat test target falls back toward Earth, entering the atmosphere where it and the net burn up. Current estimates place the number of space debris at 40,000 objects weighing about 7,600 tons. Any given object could collide with a current satellite, knocking it out of commission, ending the mission, and resulting in ample waste of time and money. Projects like RemoveDEBRIS will hopefully address that problem.

SOURCE: University of Surrey