A Giant Harpoon Can Drag Space Debris Back To Earth

Posted: Mar 17 2018, 3:47pm CDT | by , Updated: Mar 18 2018, 2:31pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
A Giant Harpoon Can Drag Space Debris Back to Earth
An artist's impression of debris in orbit around the Earth

European aerospace company Airbus is developing a harpoon that can remove massive defunct satellites from space

An estimated 170 million pieces of space junk are orbiting around the Earth. Space junk is basically defunct satellites, fragments of rockets or other manmade objects that are no longer used and begin to float in low Earth orbit. The increasing amount of the debris orbiting around Earth could lead to catastrophic collisions with satellites and spacecrafts and can pose a threat to astronauts aboard them.

Space agencies around the world are trying different ways to remove this debris and to make space travel safer, but most of these efforts failed miserably. Now, engineers from Airbus UK have come up with a new plan. They are developing a giant harpoon that will drag space debris down into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up and disintegrate.

The 1-meter long harpoon will be attached to a strong tether and pull junk out of orbit around Earth.

"Many of these targets will be tumbling and if you were to use a robotic arm, say, that involves a lot of quite complex motions to follow your target. Whereas, with the harpoon, all you have to do is sit a distance away, wait for the target to rotate underneath you, and at the right moment fire your harpoon. And because it's a really quick event, it takes out a lot of the complexity." Advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman told BBC.

Aerospace company Airbus has been working on the harpoon concept for many years. As the space junk problem has been getting worse every year, the company is aiming to further improve the capabilities of their device. They are hoping to design a harpoon that can capture Envisat-like satellites. The 8,000kg satellite has been left abandoned since 2012 and is floating around near-Earth space.

"Envisat is the outlier," said Wayman "If we can design a harpoon that can cope with Envisat, then it should be able to cope with all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit."

Airbus has already tested a harpoon at their facility in Stevenage. Also, they are planning to launch a miniature version of the Airbus harpoon next month as part of mission called RemoveDebris.

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