The European Commission Just Launched the First Satellite Designed to Remove Space Debris
As the world gears up for the new space race, it's easy to forget that space isn't the virgin soil it used to be—thanks to decades of satellite and rocket launches, low-Earth orbit is now filled with over 500,000 pieces of debris the size of marbles, along with around 20,000 pieces around the size of softballs.
Every piece of this space junk is zooming around at roughly 17,500 miles per hour (Mach 22), making each one a disaster waiting to happen. However, a new rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday carrying a satellite called RemoveDEBRIS, launched by the European Commission and University of Surrey with the goal of testing out new space junk removal methods.
RemoveDEBRIS will link up with the International Space Station on Wednesday and conduct at least two trash-removal experiments: first, the satellite will deploy a net that will allow it to capture a test cube satellite, then it will try spearing a plate with its onboard harpoon.
The former method will hopefully be used to pick up smaller debris, while the harpoon will hopefully allow space agencies to clear large objects like satellites out of orbit.
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite also has a parachute to slow its descent back into the atmosphere, where it's designed to burn up along with its payload of junk.
RemoveDEBRIS could help prevent another situation like the Tiangong-1 satellite, which came crashing through Earth's atmosphere this past Sunday. Though the satellite apparently landed in the South Pacific, it had the potential to hit populated areas across the globe and shower them with dangerous chunks of metal. Even though Tiangong was tracked for months, scientists weren't sure where it would come down until the eve of its descent.
According to Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, the director of the Surrey Space Centre, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite is the first step to dealing with space junk on a wider scale. "We believe the technologies we will be demonstrating with RemoveDEBRIS could provide feasible answers to the space junk problem—answers that could be used on future space missions in the very near future."