• A harpoon designed to spear and capture space junk has been tested for the first time.
  • Launched by the RemoveDebris satellite it is one of the world’s first attempts to address the build-up of dangerous space debris.
  • The harpoon was fired at 20 metres a second and was able to penetrate a target hanging from a boom 1.5 metres away. 

A harpoon designed to spear and capture space junk has been tested for the first time. 

Launched by the RemoveDebris satellite it is one of the world’s first attempts to address the build-up of dangerous space debris.

The harpoon, designed by Airbus Stevenage, was fired at 20 metres a second and was able to penetrate a target hanging from a boom 1.5 metres away. The aim is to make it shoot up to 30 metres in the future. 

RemoveDEBRIS is a small satellite mission for Active Debris Removal experiments. The satellite is designed, built and manufactured by a consortium of leading space companies and research institutions, led by the University of Surrey. The spacecraft is operated in orbit by engineers at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd in Guildford, United Kingodom (UK). The project is co-funded by the European Union.

This marks the third successful experiment for the RemoveDEBRIS project. It previously used its on-board net to capture a simulated piece of debris, and then trialled its state-of-the-art LiDAR and camera based vision navigation system to identify space junk.

Read: a satellite has successfully shown it can snare space junk in orbit with this net

"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” said Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

The team is now preparing for a final experiment, which is set to take place in March, and will see RemoveDEBRIS inflate a sail that will drag the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere where it will be destroyed. 

The US Space Surveillance Network tracks 40,000 objects and it is estimated that there are more than 7,600 tonnes of ‘space junk’ in and around Earth’s orbit - with some moving faster than a speeding bullet, approaching speeds of 30,000 miles per hour.

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