The International Space Station Released a Satellite Which Harpoons Space Junk For Its First Field Test
Earth's orbit is increasingly filling up with space junk and debris, much of which comes from defunct or destroyed satellites, and while we've never experienced a Gravity situation where flying space debris caused a catastrophic collision just yet, the risk is only going to increase as we continue launching stuff up past the Earth's atmosphere.
To help clean up the cluttered space around the Earth, a number of different companies, including Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology, and NanoRacks, recently launched a cube-shaped satellite (onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule) to the International Space Station. This satellite, called RemoveDEBRIS, notably contains a harpoon which it can deploy to spear and collect space junk.
In its first test since arriving at the ISS, RemoveDEBRIS was just released from the station via the robotic arm Canadarm2, and researchers at the University of Surrey in England confirmed shortly after that they'd established contact with the satellite. At 220 pounds (100 kilograms), it's one of the biggest payloads ever deployed from the ISS.
For the next couple months, engineers will stay in contact with RemoveDEBRIS, although it's not expected to break out its harpoon until experiments begin toward the end of this year. And even then, the harpoon is just a single tool in the veritable Swiss army knife that is RemoveDEBRIS, which also contains a net for catching space debris and a large drag sail for braking and deorbiting itself, each of which needs to be tested separately.
Delighted to confirm that we locked on to #RemoveDEBRIS on the first pass over our ground station here in Guildford - telemetry all nominal.https://t.co/E3aiZt8SeW Image courtesy of NASA/NanoRacks @NanoRacks @AirbusSpace @SurreyNanosats @SpaceAtSurrey pic.twitter.com/Ul6dw1DKkO— Surrey Satellites (@SurreySat) June 20, 2018
That drag sail is especially important - it's the final tool that RemoveDEBRIS will use since it will allow the satellite to fall back to Earth, but it will also be important for showing how a satellite can be safely deorbited so it won't add to the clutter. It would be rather ironic of RemoveDEBRIS became a piece of debris itself after doing some cleaning, and its designers were careful to avoid that.
Ideally, RemoveDEBRIS will be the first of many satellites with nets and harpoons to collect space junk. Different organizations have different amounts of junk that they're tracking, but the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) tracks over 23,000 large amounts of debris larger than a softball, and it's suspected that there are countless more tiny bits of debris which are impossible to track.
So for now, we'll just focus on the bits of debris large enough to harpoon.