Airbus Wants To Use a Giant Harpoon to Clear Up Space Junk

Thursday, 15 March 2018 - 12:28PM
Robotics
ESA
Science News
Thursday, 15 March 2018 - 12:28PM
Airbus Wants To Use a Giant Harpoon to Clear Up Space Junk
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Image Credit: RemoveDebris/YouTube
The ever-growing field of garbage in Earth's orbit is becoming increasingly problematic.

Sending something into space is a costly endeavor. Once a satellite (or sometimes an entire space station) outlives is usefulness, it's easier and cheaper to just leave it up there.

The problem is much like polluting in a river: nobody notices any downsides at first but, over time, the amount of junk floating around becomes harder to ignore. While space junk can't cause damage down on Earth, it does jeopardize future missions since engineers must account for a growing sea of discarded metal that could damage sensitive equipment.

Thankfully, Airbus has a solution, and it's a good one: in order to clean up orbital garbage, the company is using a giant harpoon to spear satellites from a distance so they can be dealt with accordingly.

The harpoon is approximately three feet long and fires at 82 feet per second to skewer satellites. It is currently undergoing tests before it can be sent into orbit, but progress thus far has been good.

Airbus has been experimenting with these harpoons for several years now, upgrading and improving their technology. The current harpoon is being built with the European Envisat Earth observation platform in mind, which stopped functioning in 2012. This is a particularly huge piece of space junk; the hope is that if the Airbus harpoon can successfully deal with it, there shouldn't be any problems using the harpoon for smaller stuff.

According to the project's advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman:

Opening quote
"Envisat is the outlier. If we can design a harpoon that can cope with Envisat, then it should be able to cope with all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit."
Closing quote


The plan is for the harpoon to deal with the satellites in the easiest way possible: by simply dragging them into a lower orbit around the Earth until they drop down and burn up as they enter the atmosphere.

Wayman believes that this simple yet elegant solution to the space junk problem is a lot more efficient than alternatives:

Opening quote
"Many of these targets will be tumbling and if you were to use a robotic arm, say, that involves a lot of quite complex motions to follow your target. Whereas, with the harpoon, all you have to do is sit a distance away, wait for the target to rotate underneath you, and at the right moment fire your harpoon. And because it's a really quick event, it takes out a lot of the complexity."
Closing quote


Of course, an even easier solution would be to not have to worry about harpoons in the first place. In the future, it's likely that governments will become a lot more strict regarding waste that's dumped in orbit around the Earth.

Nobody likes a litterbug, especially one that gets in the way of rocketships and space stations.

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