RemoveDEBRIS’s Harpoon Successfully Snares Space Junk. Watch video

In a new milestone for space, the first ever space harpoon was fired 400 kilometres above Earth precisely one week ago.

This test was merely a practice run, but it was successful. The experiment proved that harpoons could be a viable technology for clearing away space junk. RemoveDEBRIS, the spacecraft behind this harpoon test is the work of a partnership between Surrey University, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, and Airbus Defence and Space. These entities are dedicated to texting technologies that could help eliminate space junk, which is increasingly clogging up our orbital neighbourhood.

Space junk is composed of defunct satellites, anything an astronaut has dropped, retired rocket engines, and as more and more space junk crashes into each other fragments of these collisions add to space junk as well. These pieces of floating debris are a genuine risk for robotic, and crewed space ventures.

RemoveDEBRIS, a small satellite mission designed to test space debris removal technologies, successfully completed a harpoon test firing on 8th February 2019. This video shows the test in both real-time and in slow motion. Video credit: Airbus

Space junk moves at approximately seven kilometres per second. That means that even a tiny piece of junk like a paint chip or a screw has the potential to cause some severe damage to space infrastructure. In fact, the international space station is damaged by minor collisions on the regular. It often has to move its orbit to prevent hitting bigger pieces of space junk that have the power to destroy it outright.

NASA says that they track 500,000 pieces of junk and the total amount of debris weighs in at 6,800 tonnes.

The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, at the Johnson Space Center, is recognized around the globe for their efforts to try and solve issues of orbital debris. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office is in the lead internationally when it comes to performing measurements of the environment.

Of course, projects like RemoveDEBRIS are crucial to NASA Orbital Debris Program’s mission. To date, RemoveDEBRIS has proven that a net can be used to snare a floating satellite and accurately track a moving piece of space debris and intercept it. Now, the most recent tests show that the harpoon is a viable method for catching space debris too. 

The project’s overall goal is to equip large satellites with these tools so they can chase down space junk. Gathering the debris with nets and harpoons and then launching a huge “solar sail” to slow down. From there these satellite garbage trucks would lead themselves and their load of garbage to renter the atmosphere and burn up.