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The Solution to Dangerous Space Junk is, Evidently, a Giant Harpoon

In space, no one can hear you scream… which is what you would probably be doing if your shuttle or one of your precious satellites was suddenly obliterated by one of the thousands upon thousands of pieces of space junk that are hurtling around the Earth’s orbit at breakneck speeds of up to 30,000 miles per hour. Because these tiny pieces of debris are traveling at such immense speeds, the process turns even the smallest bit of detritus into an incredibly dangerous projectile. Thankfully, Elon Musk and SpaceX are stepping up the plate to help make outer space a cleaner place. In early April, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a reused Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, which contained an experimental new space debris removal system known as “RemoveDebris.” Its mission: to Aquaman the ever-loving hell out of space junk.

The succinctly named system was developed by a team led by the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, and will employ three different ways of capturing space trash: a gigantic net, a harpoon, and a drag sail. One interesting wrinkle in the experiment, according to Space.com, is that the University of Surrey team has to bring their own debris with them in order to test this system due to current laws preventing outside entities from handling objects in space that belong to another party, even if they are no longer operational.

“You can’t just go up there and capture someone else’s debris,” said Jason Forshaw, the RemoveDebris project manager at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre, to SpaceNews.com. “That’s why for this mission we are actually ejecting our own little cubesats.”

The team will attempt to demonstrate active removal of debris by launching two cubesats. They will capture one satellite by using the aforementioned net, and they will employ both a Lidar system and an optical camera to launch a harpoon into the other cubesat in order to test vision-based technologies in space. Once its mission is complete, the RemoveDebris system’s main platform will deploy its dragsail and slowly reenter the Earth’s atmosphere within a period of two years.

While there’s still a long way to go until these speeding trash bullets are cleaned up once and for all, we can breathe a bit easier known that we’re not headed for a horrifying, Planetes-style future.

Image: Bandai Entertainment

But wait, there’s more! Space junk is just the tip of the iceberg on this week’s episode of Muskwatch. Your hosts Dan Casey and Kyle Hill are also digging into Elon Musk’s unexpected new proprietary alcohol, his appearance at the Do You Trust This Computer? premiere, and much more!

Muskwatch airs on Nerdist.com and YouTube every Tuesdaybut you can watch all new episodes two full days earlier on Sunday if you’re an Alpha subscriber. If you’re not already, find out how you can get 30 days free right here.

What do you think of this week’s biggest Musk stories? What would you like to see us explore on the next Muskwatch? Let us know in the comments below!

Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey)

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