A British satellite, designed to test out ways to clean up debris in space, just successfully ensnared a simulated piece of junk in orbit using a big net. On Sunday, September 16th, the vehicle, known as the RemoveDEBRIS satellite, deployed its onboard net, which then captured a nearby target probe that the vehicle had released a few seconds earlier. The demonstration shows that a simple idea like a net may be an effective way to clean up all the material orbiting Earth.

The RemoveDEBRIS satellite is meant to try out numerous different methods for cleaning up space junk, which has become a growing problem ever since we started launching rockets into orbit. Thousands of dead, uncontrollable objects linger in orbit, including defunct satellites, spent launch vehicles, and other pieces of debris that have come off other spacecraft. And all of this junk is moving fast, at upwards of 17,000 miles per hour. The more debris we have in orbit, the higher the chance that these pieces might collide at break-neck speeds, creating even more debris that could pose a threat to other spacecraft.

The idea behind the net is relatively simple: capture a piece of material and then drag it down to Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. To see if this idea could work, RemoveDEBRIS was equipped with a small standardized satellite known as a CubeSat, which it deployed on Sunday. The tiny satellite drifted outward and then inflated a balloon to increase its overall size (in order to represent a larger, more realistic piece of debris). Once the CubeSat was more than 20 feet away, the RemoveDEBRIS vehicle then shot out its net. Masses at the edges of the net wrapped around the target to make sure it didn’t break free from the snare.

the months ahead, RemoveDEBRIS will deploy a thin sail that will do exactly this and ultimately take the satellite out of orbit. But before that happens, the vehicle will first try out its onboard harpoon. Soon, RemoveDEBRIS will deploy a flat target that will extend outward from the spacecraft. Quickly afterward, it will fire its harpoon and attempt to strike the target. The test is meant to demonstrate another way of capturing spacecraft.

Additionally, RemoveDEBRIS is equipped with special cameras and LIDAR technology that could also be used to image space debris and help with navigation. It’s all meant to show that these tools could be used to clean up real defunct satellites someday.

“If the demonstration is successful, we will learn a lot of useful stuff,” Aglietti said. “Then the idea is there will be real missions to capture a real piece of debris.” Such space junk-capturing satellites will need to have thrusters on board so that they can catch up with the fast-moving debris. But Aglietti hopes RemoveDEBRIS will inspire confidence that these methods are practical. “We think it will be a good stepping stone to prove that the building blocks of space debris removal are viable,” he said.

 

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