Britain launches satellite to scoop up space junk with giant net
British satellite RemoveDEBRIS has successfully fired a net into orbit to capture space debris.
The spacecraft deployed its net over 300km above Earth – a height which, due to atmospheric drag, is usually the lowest that satellites orbit at. RemoveDEBRIS is intended to scoop up the residual “space junk” left by redundant missions, a category which encompasses everything from bits of old rockets to small tools dropped by astronauts.
A video of the experimental mission shows a net, deployed via a harpoon from the satellite, capturing a small, redundant shoebox-sized object.
RemoveDEBRIS belongs to the University of Surrey, and the project was overseen by Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre. Aglietti assured onlookers, “It worked just as we hoped it would”, explaining “[t]he target was spinning like you would expect an uncooperative piece of junk to behave, but you can see clearly that the net captures it, and we’re very happy with the way the experiment went.”
This is far from space hijinks – a sort of celestial lacrosse, if you will. The University of Surrey elucidates, explaining that the craft aims to perform “key Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations,” such as capture and “deorbiting”. Given that the procedure was simply a demonstration, the net was not tethered to the satellite and the objects were allowed to fall to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere as they went.
Ordinarily, the net would be attached to the spacecraft, before pulling materials in orbit into its net. Whether nets would be used to as a giant kind of space landfills amassing junk, or would be periodically allowed to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, as of yet remains unclear. The procedure is still in its experimental phase; logistical kinks are expected to be imminently ironed out.
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The experiment comes as part of a broader endeavour to help clear up redundant space objects encircling the Earth, of which there’s currently estimated to be 7,500 tonnes. The hope is that the practice will help rid the sky of metal objects and other discarded pieces of “space junk” that pose a risk to active satellites and spacecraft should they collide with them. This is a problem that’s been snowballing for a while now, but the University of Surrey’s satellite is the first to test a practical solution.
If the odds of this kind of collision sound pretty minute, it’s worth noting that a number of companies worldwide are gearing up to launch thousands of new satellites into space. The proliferation of spacecraft doing the rounds, so to speak, significantly heightens the risk of collision. It seems the aptly named RemoveDebris project, though nascent, wields a lot of foresight.