Watch a Space Harpoon Capture Debris in Orbit

Feb 19 2019 -- 11:05 AM

Sadly the problem of floating garbage isn't limited to just our oceans, it's also a major menace in space, where tens of thousands of pieces of debris orbit Earth. The mass clutter of junk we've left spinning in the sky poses a huge risk to the safety of satellites we depend on down here. But this new age problem might be solved using a very modern upgrade of an old solution, because for the first time space debris was successful captured with a harpoon. A space harpoon.

The University of Surrey's RemoveDEBRIS satellite has successfully test fired it's on-board harpoon (which we first learned about at The Verge). The titanium spear was fired at 20 meters-per-second (almost 45 mph) at a small aluminum target extended from the spacecraft (there are rules about capturing other institutions' space objects, even space garbage) to see if it would work. It pierced the panel without creating any more debris, and then successfully pulled it back to the ship. 

RemoveDEBRIS, which has an onboard vision-based navigation camera to identify space junk with "accurate information vital for measuring distance, direction and speed of space debris," was "designed, built and manufactured by a consortium of leading space companies and research institutions" from around the world. The effort to begin addressing the problem of 40,000 pieces of space garbage weighing 7.6 tons (some traveling at 30,000 mph!) involves more than just a space harpoon though. Previously a space net was tested, which might be even cooler to see in action.

In March RemoveDEBRIS will test its final method, a space sail "that will drag the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere where it will be destroyed." You can see an example of how that will work in this video here, which also includes an overview of the entire project.

Cleaning up junk is one of mankind's oldest problems, but who would have guessed we'd still using old methods to deal with it even in space.

Featured Image: University of Surrey