Space is awesome. We all love watching the latest rocket launch, and keeping tabs on what the astronauts aboard the International Space Station are up to. Though SpaceX has recently taken to recycling many parts of their rockets, for many years the very simple solution was to simply launch stuff into space and just leave it there. Satellites, various stages of launched rockets, and other debris is just floating around up there, possibly causing problems with functional equipment. Airbus believes they have the answer to space junk, and it’s a blast from the past: a giant harpoon to spear junk and reel it back into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up upon re-entry.
So just how big of a problem is space junk? Estimates of as many as 20,000 items measuring 10cm or larger are currently being tracked. The current Airbus design is being made to deal with the biggest junk out there. The Moby Dick of space junk if you will. The ESA’s Envisat Earth observation platform kind of spontaneously died back in 2012, and has just been floating around ever since. Envisat weighs in at around 8 tons, so it’s big. Airbus thinks they’ve got a harpoon that’s up to the challenge.
At a testing facility in the UK, Airbus launches its harpoon using compressed air at various plating that represents the sort of thing they’d run into in space. This is usually 3cm thick paneling, which the harpoon cuts through “like a hot knife through butter” according to an Airbus engineer.
Airbus is going with a harpoon versus a net, robotic arm, or any other method due to its simplicity. Simply aim, and at the appropriate time, fire. Once skewered, the harpoon opens up barbs to keep itself attached, while the chase ship will maneuver in order to keep its quarry under control until it can be dragged back into the loving arms of gravity to burn up in the atmosphere.
A smaller version of the harpoon will be tested next month on a mission by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd aptly named RemoveDebris. The mission will be starting off small, dropping its own bit of space junk which it will then attempt to retrieve. Other systems (including nets) will also be tried, but Airbus is hoping their smaller harpoon will work as a proof of concept, though really they’d at least like to confirm that the system will work as they intend it will in zero gravity.