A team of British engineers have developed a clever new way to clear away debris floating around in Earth’s orbit. The team of researchers from the University of Surrey have launched a debris-clearing space harpoon as part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods of reducing space debris.
Humans have been sending objects into space for nearly seven decades now. In that time, thousands of pieces of debris have been deposited in Earth’s orbit, ranging in size from microscopic to potentially catastrophic. Some of the most concerning pieces consist of spent first rocket stages and non-functioning satellites. A manned spacecraft hitting one of these objects during a mission could have devastating consequences.
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite was launched on board a SpaceX Falcon rocket in April 2018. In previous testing last September, the researchers used a net device aboard the satellite to successfully capture a piece of space junk. The researchers are also testing computer vision systems that can identify and track targets moving through space.
In this latest test, the researchers used a harpoon device no larger than a writing pen to pierce an aluminum panel the size of a table tennis racket specially positioned for the test. The harpoon fired effectively at 44 mph (20 meters a second) and traveled the 5 feet (1.5 meters) to the target without incident. Once contact was made, removing the debris was simply a matter of reeling it in.
The space harpoon is meant for large targets like full-size satellites that are inoperable. Chris Burgess, Harpoon Lead Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, said in a press release, “Successful in space demonstration of the harpoon technology is a significant step towards solving the growing issue of space debris.”