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Space harpoon makes ‘shish kebab’ out of orbital debris

Photo Credit: USA Today
There are currently 8000 tonnes of space trash orbiting Earth
by TR Pakistan

RemoveDebris — a British-led mission to test different techniques of clearing up space junk — has used a harpoon-like projectile to skewer and clear debris. The University of Surrey, which directed the project, issued a press release detailing the experiment on February 15.

In its 60 years of space travel, mankind has left 8,000 tonnes of material aimlessly orbiting the planet. These include old rocket parts and other spacecraft fragments. This space trash poses a serious threat to new missions as well as operational satellites that serve important functions in modern telecommunications.

Video footage of the RemoveDebris experiment shows the “harpoon” collide with its target with a force strong enough to dismantle its structure. The projectile used then deploys barbs to prevent the target from floating away. It was launched from a 100 kilogram satellite, which carries a number of demonstration technologies aimed at clearing space waste.

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The target used was a board made of standard satellite paneling about 10 cm in length, attached to a 1.5 metre long extended pole called a boom.

The principal investigator of the mission, Professor Guglielmo Aglietti of the University of Surrey has declared the experiment a total success.

“You see the harpoon hit the target in the centre, as expected, and get embedded. The target comes off the boom, but that’s not a problem because the harpoon is tethered; it’s attached to a wire. So all elements worked,” he told the media.

RemoveDebris previously used a net to capture a piece of junk about 300 kilometres from Earth. Before that, the mission used Vision Based Navigation technology to track an object.

The mission’s next test will use a “drag sail” on the mission’s own spacecraft. A large membrane that will brush against residual air molecules and accelerate the pace at which the spacecraft leaves orbit, thereby preventing it from becoming a peice of space debris itself.

The £13 million RemoveDebris project was launched last year and receives funding from the European Union.