space debris

First satellite designed to capture space junk launches to the ISS

Image credit: Dreamstime

The RemoveDebris satellite project has launched and will demonstrate methods to clear up the Earth’s increasingly dangerous space junk problem.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has delivered the satellite to the International Space Station (ISS), where it will be deployed, via the NanoRacks Kaber system, to conduct a series of experiments that will demonstrate cost-effective technologies that can be used to observe and capture space debris.

The recent fiery demise of the Chinese space lab Tiangong-1 is a timely reminder of the growing hazard of space junk. The defunct 10.4-metre-long spacecraft, weighing 8.5 tonnes, re-entered the atmosphere early yesterday morning.

According to official reports it mostly broke up harmlessly above the South Pacific, but there is uncertainty about its precise fate. Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the US, tweeted that it appeared to have come down north-west of Tahiti.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) designed and manufactured the RemoveDebris satellite platform, which hosts the payloads for use in the debris removal demonstrations. These payloads, or technical content within them, have been produced by mission partners Airbus, ArianeGroup, CSEM, Inria, ISIS, SSC and Stellenbosch University.

In the first of two capture experiments, a net will be discharged at one of the deployed target cubesats to demonstrate net capture in space.

The second capture experiment will see a harpoon launched at a deployable target plate, made of representative satellite panel materials – the first harpoon capture in orbit. 

The third experiment involves vision-based navigation by deploying the second cubesat and demonstrating rendezvous navigation using cameras and a lidar.  Finally, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will deploy a large dragsail to speed de-orbit, where it will burn up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Nasa tracks more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a cricket ball orbiting the Earth at speeds of up to 17,500mph. There are an estimated 500,000 pieces the size of a marble or larger.

Although the chances are low, a collision between even a small object and a space craft carrying valuable equipment or a human crew would be disastrous.

In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that exploded a decade earlier.

On February 10 2009, a clapped-out Russian satellite collided with and destroyed the functioning Iridium communications satellite. That collision added more than 2,000 extra pieces of trackable debris to the growing space junk inventory.

RemoveDebris, designed and built by a consortium led by the University of Surrey and funded by the European Commission, is the first practical attempt to try out clean-up technology aimed at tackling the problem.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said: “It is important to remember that a few significant collisions have already happened.

 “We believe the technologies we will be demonstrating with RemoveDEBRIS could provide feasible answers to the space junk problem - answers that could be used on future space missions in the very near future.”

Nasa already attached a space debris sensor to the outside of the ISS earlier this year which allowed researchers to track space debris impacts in real-time. 

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