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Watch a big net snag a piece of space junk in first-ever test of new cleanup system

Published Sep 21st, 2018 2:55PM EDT
space junk net
Image: Surrey Space Centre

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Mankind has made a real mess of planet Earth. Our trash is just about everywhere, from city streets to the most remote areas of the oceans, and that trend continues in space as well. There’s an incredible amount of random junk floating around in Earth’s orbit, including defunct satellites and bits and pieces of other spacecraft that have run into each other and made matters worse.

Now, a new system for doing away with the larger chunks of space junk has finally been tested, and it seems to actually work. It’s part of a larger project that is fittingly called RemoveDEBRIS, and a recent test of the net-based system successfully captured a test object which it will soon pull down into Earth’s atmosphere.

The one good thing about space junk is that we don’t have to actually carry it back down to Earth to dispose of most of it. The friction with Earth’s atmosphere can incinerate a lot of the chunks of trash cruising through orbit as long as we can pull them down a bit. This new space net system does just that by interrupting the orbital path of the object and causing it to fall much more rapidly.

For this first round of real-world testing a small dummy satellite was deployed. An umbrella-like net was then fired at the object and subsequently wrapped up tightly. This is exactly what a system would need to do when it encounters and actual piece of space trash, and it appears to be quite capable.

The larger RemoveDEBRIS project is a collaboration between many countries, and many of them have proposed novel solutions to the space junk problem. In addition to the net system, a harpoon has been proposed that would skewer larger objects and yank them down towards Earth to be burnt up.

Going forward, the scientists who conducted the net capture tests will try out a few other techniques, including the harpoon, in order to gauge its feasibility. The team will also test features of the spacecraft that would let it pinpoint specific pieces of space junk and intercept them.