17th February 2019
Harpoon successfully captures space debris
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite, one of the world's first attempts to address the build-up of dangerous space debris, has successfully used its on-board harpoon-capture system in orbit.
The Airbus-designed harpoon featured a 1.5 metre boom deployed from the main spacecraft, with a piece of satellite panel on the end. The harpoon was fired at 20 metres/second to penetrate the target and demonstrate its ability to capture debris.
This marks the third successful experiment for the RemoveDEBRIS project, which was launched in April 2018. It previously used an on-board net to capture a simulated piece of debris, and then trialled a state-of-the-art LiDAR and vision navigation system to identify space junk.
The team is now preparing for the final experiment, which is set to take place in March and will inflate a sail, to drag the satellite into Earth's atmosphere where it will burn up and be destroyed.
"Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites," said Chris Skidmore, UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. "This inspiring project shows that UK experts are coming up with answers for this potential problem using a harpoon, a tool people have used throughout history. This mission is a powerful example of our expertise in space technology."
RemoveDEBRIS is a small satellite mission to test four Active Debris Removal (ADR) experiments. The spacecraft was designed, built and manufactured by a consortium of leading space companies and research institutions, led by the University of Surrey. It is operated in orbit by engineers at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd in Guildford, UK. The project is co-funded by the European Union.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks 40,000 objects and it is estimated that there are 7,600 tonnes of 'space junk' in Earth's orbit, with some moving faster than a speeding bullet, approaching speeds of 30,000 miles per hour. The rapidly growing space industry is resulting in more and more debris accumulating above the Earth – the amount is expected to almost triple by 2030 – so projects like RemoveDEBRIS will be essential in the coming years.