Space Junk Clean-up Mission Prepares For Launch

Harpoons, nets and sails are to be sent into space in an effort to tackle the problem of space junk. The mission, dubbed RemoveDebris, is expected to launch early next year and will test a range of devices designed to sweep up litter orbiting the Earth.

Without such technology, the scientists say, satellite-based communication, weather monitoring and navigation systems could be at risk. “The problem with so much junk up there now is it is actually starting to prove a real issue, and the chance of collisions is increasing all the time,” said Jason Forshaw, the project manager of RemoveDebris at the Surrey Space Centre.

Around 7,000 tonnes of space junk are estimated to circle our planet, ranging from defunct satellites to tiny fragments of debris, with the figure rising exponentially. It’s a very real hazard. In 2009, the US satellite Iridium 33 collided with the defunct Russian satellite Kosmos 225 in an event that destroyed them both.

While objects larger than 10cm are monitored, even tiny fragments of debris can cause damage. As Tim Peake recently revealed, a speck less than 1mm wide produced a circular chip 7mm in diameter in a window of the International Space Station. But an international team of researchers say they have designed a range of systems to solve the problem.

Presented at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition this week, and led by the Surrey Space Centre, the systems included a net, harpoon and drag sail, which scientists have incorporated into a test platform for launch into space. The platform will also carry “artificial junk” in the form of small satellites known as CubeSats.

Once the platform is launched into space, a CubeSat will be released. “The CubeSat will be ejected from the platform and then we’ll fire the net at it,” said Forshaw. The CubeSat, hopefully encased in the net, will then fall back towards Earth and burn up.

Artist’s impression of space junk orbiting Earth. Photograph: European Space Agency / Rex Feat

In the case of the harpoon, the researchers have attached a target made of spacecraft material to a carbon-fibre boom that extends from the platform. “When the harpoon impacts it, it is actually going to simulate a real spacecraft being hit,” said Forshaw.

At the end of the mission the third system, a drag sail will be deployed. Attached to the platform, the sail will speed up its return to Earth where it will burn up in the atmosphere. Similar systems have been proposed for future satellites to allow them to be disposed of without leaving space junk.

Funded by the European commission to the tune of around €13m (£10.9m), the RemoveDebris mission is set to be one of the world’s first mission to test systems for capturing junk in space. While a full-scale mission is likely to cost significantly more, Forshaw believes it is a necessary expense. “The reality is you are spending a small amount now to prevent huge disasters from occurring in the future,” he said. Source:  The Guardian

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