World's First Satellite With Harpoon Will Begin Space Junk Removal Test

After more than 60-years of human beings launching satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), space junk has become a rather serious problem. In fact, humans have left outer space an absolute mess.

In the collection of space junk orbiting above, it includes spent boosters, dead satellites, spacecraft parts, and even Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster.

According to the United States Space Surveillance Network, there are more than 21,000 objects larger than 3.93 inches orbiting Earth. But, it gets worse, there are an estimated 500,000 bits and pieces of space junk between .40 inches and 3.93 inches in size. The figures do not count active satellites, which the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), counts roughly 4,600 active satellites overhead.

Last month, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite, one of the world’s first experiments to address the problem of space debris orbiting Earth, was launched from the International Space Station (ISS), indicating that a new era of junk removal in space has begun. The satellite traveled to the ISS on a commercial resupply mission aboard the SpaceX CRS-14, following its launch via a Falcon 9 rocket back in April.

Video: RemoveDEBRIS satellite departs from ISS

Led by Surrey Space Centre (SSC) at the University of Surrey, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite was constructed on the SSTL-42 satellite bus platform. The mission to remove space debris was mostly funded by the European Union, will demonstrate its satellite junk removal capabilities later this year and into next.

RemoveDEBRIS satellite features three Airbus technologies to complete the Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission: a harpoon and net to capture space junk, and a Vision-Based Navigation (VBN) system to find space debris.

“We have spent many years developing innovative active debris removal systems to be at the forefront of tackling this growing problem of space debris and to contribute to the UNs’ Sustainable Development Goals for our future generations,” noted Nicolas Chamussy, Head of Airbus Space Systems.

“We will continue to work closely with teams across the world to make our expertise available to help solve this issue.”

The mission began last month via the departure from the ISS. Deployment of the net from RemoveDEBRIS is scheduled for October, while the VBN test could be late Demeber. The harpoon test is expected sometime in the first quarter of 2019. All experiments will be conducted underneath the ISS.

“During the net experiment, a cubesat will be deployed from the main mission craft. Once the cubesat is 5m away, it will be targeted by the net and captured at around 7m before it floats away to deorbit. The harpoon experiment will involve the launch of a 1.5m boom from the main spacecraft with a composite panel on the end. After launching the boom, the harpoon will be fired at 20m per second to penetrate the target and demonstrate its ability to capture debris. The VBN system will be used to test 2D cameras and 3D light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology provided by Switzerland’s CSEM to track a second cubesat deployed from the main spacecraft,” said Nasaspaceflight.com.

Video: Space Debris removal mission animation – RemoveDEBRIS

If the experiment is successful, the RemoveDebris satellite could be the most cost-effective, orbital debris removal solution the world has ever seen. This would usher in a boom period for the space junk removal industry, which could be first sparked by a series production of the RemoveDebris satellite, along with countless launches via Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 to the ISS. Maybe President Trump’s space force will get it on the action…