Ever since we humans started launching ourselves in space, junk has been accumulating in orbit around the Earth. There are more than 7,600 tons of space junk circling our plant, the product of old launches or long-dead satellites. It’s a growing concern for scientists since that space junk can collide with satellites we rely on and take them out of commission, so at some point, it’s going to need to be cleaned up. One of the ways we might do that is with harpoons.
The RemoveDEBRIS project, which is operated by Surrey Satellite Technology with the help of other organizations like Airbus and CSEM, today reported a successful in-space experiment that demonstrated the effectiveness of using harpoons to collect space junk. It may not be long, then, before we have a collection of satellites orbiting the Earth and harpooning any space junk they come across.
For the experiment, a piece of a satellite panel was attached to a 1.5-meter boom, itself attached to the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft. The spacecraft then fired a harpoon at 20 meters per second, spearing the panel with seemingly no issue. You can watch the test in slow motion via the video embedded above.
This is actually the third experiment the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft has carried out in space. The first experiment involved the spacecraft using an onboard net to capture a piece of space junk and direct into Earth’s atmosphere so it could burn up, while the second experiment was a test of the spacecraft’s vision-based navigation system that uses LiDAR and cameras. After this successful harpoon test, there’s one experiment left to go, and it’ll test the spacecraft’s inflatable sail.
Unfortunately, a successful experiment will mean the end of the road for this spacecraft, as it’ll use that sail to venture into Earth’s atmosphere, where it’ll be destroyed. There’s no word on when RemoveDEBRIS might return to space once this series of tests is complete, but for now, these successful experiments are definitely encouraging news in the fight against space junk.
Image Source: NASA