Spearing space junk: orbiting harpoon fires successfully

By on 20 February, 2019


RemoveDEBRIS main satellite in pre-launch preparation. Image provided by SSTL.

The latest weapon in the quest to deal with space junk is a harpoon, which has successfully impaled a test object in orbit.

Following on from proposed space junk removal methods of a gigantic net and ultra-powerful spaceborne lasers, the successful orbital penetration is being hailed as an excellent outcome in a challenging experiment.

Space junk poses a very real threat to all space activities, with an estimated 7,600 tonnes of defunct, man-made objects speeding orbiting Earth at velocities of up to 48,000 kilometres per hour.

Led by the University of Surrey with a consortium of industry partners, the RemoveDEBRIS mission was deployed from the International Space Station in June 2018, aiming to test a range of technologies for capturing or destroying the tens of thousands of objects orbiting Earth.

RemoveDEBRIS mission’s target and harpoon during ground testing. Image provided by Airbus.

For the harpoon test, a 1.5 metre boom was deployed 100-kilogram main satellite, clutching the target — a small piece of satellite panel . The pen-sized harpoon, developed by Airbus Stevenage, was successfully aimed and fired into the target at a speed of 20 metres per second, then used to reel the target back to the main satellite.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said: “This is RemoveDEBRIS’ most demanding experiment and the fact that it was a success is testament to all involved. The RemoveDEBRIS project provides strong evidence of what can be achieved with the power of collaboration – pooling together the experience across industry and the research field to achieve something truly remarkable.”

The harpoon’s firing was the third successful experiment carried out by RemoveDEBRIS, following the test-fire of a net to snare errant space junk, and a vision-based ranging system that used 2D and 3D LiDAR to track a test Cubesat.

The final experiment of RemoveDEBRIS will see the main satellite deploy a drag-sail that will bring the satellite into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up on re-entry.

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