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New Experiment Will Attempt to Clean Up Space Junk

Over 7,500 tons of space junk—from old spacecraft to flecks of paint—looms above our heads.

ByYasmeen FakhroNOVA NextNOVA Next
space-debris
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked

Looking up at the night sky, it’s easy to think of space as a barren wasteland. But over 7,500 tons of space junk—from old spacecraft to flecks of paint—looms above our heads, in orbit around the Earth.

These pieces of debris present collision risks to operational missions. The RemoveDebris satellite project hopes to test multiple approaches for dealing with these hazards—such as capturing objects in a net and ensnaring them with a small harpoon.

Here’s Jonathan Amos, reporting for the BBC:

Its principal investigator is Prof Guglielmo Aglietti. He said the jury was still out on the best way to capture and remove space junk.

“As you know, there are other people who are going with the idea of a robotic arm. All these different technologies have their advantages and disadvantages,” he told BBC News.

The net and harpoon technology being tested are sometimes risker than a robotic arm. However, it is challenging to capture spinning space junk with a robotic arm, and a net could be more effective at targeting whirling debris.

Mission leaders emphasize the low costs of their net and harpoon, stating that future efforts to clean up space junk will probably be limited by cost.

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The current UK-led mission is receiving half of its funding from the European Commission and half from 10 partners. These include Airbus and the Houston-based NanoRacks, a private company that serves customers such as NASA and the European Space Agency.

The experiment is slated to begin in late May. Until then, the satellite will be stored at the International Space Station.

Once the mission is over, RemoveDebris will activate a large membrane “sail” to pull the satellite down to Earth so that it does not contribute to space debris itself.

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Image credit: NASA