British team spearheads ‘space harpoon’ to snare orbiting rubbish

A British-led mission successfully tested a harpoon that’s designed to spear space junk and capture it in orbit for the first time.

Airbus carried out the successful experiment which is a major step towards cleaning up space junk, as the number of spacecraft launches continue to increase.

Dubbed RemoveDebris, the team hope to tackle the issue of waste material in space, with between 16,000 and 20,000 pieces currently being tracked if orbit of Earth.

There are an estimated 8.1 million kilos of junk and debris floating around in space, consisting of debris from rockets and satellites. 

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A giant harpoon that could help to end the scourge of space junk has been successfully tested for the first time. The experimental 'space junk sweeper' (artist's impression) was used to retrieve a simulated space junk package in orbit above the Earth 

A giant harpoon that could help to end the scourge of space junk has been successfully tested for the first time. The experimental 'space junk sweeper' (artist's impression) was used to retrieve a simulated space junk package in orbit above the Earth 

A giant harpoon that could help to end the scourge of space junk has been successfully tested for the first time. The experimental ‘space junk sweeper’ (artist’s impression) was used to retrieve a simulated space junk package in orbit above the Earth 

The spear pierces through the skin of a sample piece of debris with force being dangled on a boom at about one and a half metres away from the spacecraft. 

Once hit, a barb is deployed on the debris and hold on to it to secure it. The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home.

The device is still years away from operational use, but the experiment is looking more and more likely to be made a reality as the number of launches increase.

There are currently more than 29,000 detectable objects larger than 10 centimetres floating around the earth. This waste can damage low satellites, spelling mayhem for global communications.

The junk can travel at speeds of around 15,534 mph (25,000 kmph) per hour meaning that if even a minuscule particle was to hit an existing satellite it could break through the protective layer and damage it. 

Astronaut Tim Peake previously revealed the damage that this junk can cause spacecraft, when he shared an image of a chipped window panel on board the International Space Station in 2016.

The giant net pierces through the skin of a sample piece of debris being dangled on a boom at about one and a half metres away from the spacecraft Here, The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home

The giant net pierces through the skin of a sample piece of debris being dangled on a boom at about one and a half metres away from the spacecraft Here, The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home

The giant net pierces through the skin of a sample piece of debris being dangled on a boom at about one and a half metres away from the spacecraft Here, The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home

Once hit, a barb is deployed on the debris to secure it. The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home. Harpoons, here, are just one possible solution to the junk issue. When in full operation, scientists aim to make the harpoon fire at debris up to 30 metres away

Once hit, a barb is deployed on the debris to secure it. The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home. Harpoons, here, are just one possible solution to the junk issue. When in full operation, scientists aim to make the harpoon fire at debris up to 30 metres away

Once hit, a barb is deployed on the debris to secure it. The target breaks off the boom when the harpoon hits home. Harpoons, here, are just one possible solution to the junk issue. When in full operation, scientists aim to make the harpoon fire at debris up to 30 metres away

It is believed that something as small as a paint chip could have caused the damage, as it hurtled towards the ISS.

When in full operation, scientists aim to make the harpoon fire at debris up to 30 metres away.

Engineers back on Earth are still trying to work out how the system can be used to target moving objects.

The harpoon, which is a joint initiative including British efforts from Airbus, the University of Surrey and the Surrey Satellite Technology firm, is capable of travelling at 20 metres per second.

RemoveDEBRIS will demonstrate active debris removal by capturing two cubesats, or mini satellites, using techniques like a harpoon, net, visual navigation system and a de-orbit sail

RemoveDEBRIS will demonstrate active debris removal by capturing two cubesats, or mini satellites, using techniques like a harpoon, net, visual navigation system and a de-orbit sail

RemoveDEBRIS will demonstrate active debris removal by capturing two cubesats, or mini satellites, using techniques like a harpoon, net, visual navigation system and a de-orbit sail

The RemoveDEBRIS mission was started in 2013 by a consortium of 10 partners across Europe, including aerospace giant Airbus and the University of Surrey's Surrey Space Center

The RemoveDEBRIS mission was started in 2013 by a consortium of 10 partners across Europe, including aerospace giant Airbus and the University of Surrey's Surrey Space Center

The RemoveDEBRIS mission was started in 2013 by a consortium of 10 partners across Europe, including aerospace giant Airbus and the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Center

A previous RemoveDebris experiment demonstrated how a net could be used to catch potentially dangerous pieces of rubbish orbiting the Earth.

Next, the group are expected to test the drag sail part of the test on March 12.

Reacting to the development, Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: ‘Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites. 

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 the UK’s expertise in space technology and that by working together, our world-class universities and innovative companies can hugely contribute to the Government’s aims for a highly skilled economy through our modern Industrial Strategy.’ 

WHAT IS SPACE JUNK?

There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion of space infrastructure.

But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 27,000kmh (16,777 mph), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.

However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.

Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.

Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist’s impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets

Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.

Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.

The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.

One is low Earth orbit which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth. 

 

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