Satellite Uses Net to Clean Up Space Junk

Spacecraft deploys net to capture an item in orbit—the first of four space debris removal technology tests to be performed.

A satellite has just made space a little bit cleaner. The aptly-named SpaceDEBRIS satellite performed a successful test of its onboard net in orbit—launching the net to ensnare a piece of debris.

It is the first of four tests the British satellite will perform of its active debris removal (ADR) technology. In the coming months, RemoveDEBRIS will also test a vision-based navigation system that uses cameras and LIDAR technology to analyse potential pieces of debris. In addition, it will launch a harpoon at a piece of debris. And finally, it will deploy a large membrane—called a drag sail—that will brush against the high atmosphere and pull the satellite into a destructive dive towards the planet, bringing its mission to a close.

SpaceDEBRIS’ net before deployment.

SpaceDEBRIS’ net before deployment.
The miniature harpoon to be tested on the mission.

The miniature harpoon to be tested on the mission.

The target wasn’t an actual piece of existing space junk: it was a small cubesat measuring 4 x 4 x 8 inches that was released by the spacecraft shortly before the capture experiment. If the system was fully operational, RemoveDERBRIS would then tug the space junk downwards so it would disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere.

“To develop this net technology to capture space debris, we spent six years testing in parabolic flights, in special drop towers and also thermal vacuum chambers,” said Ingo Retat, RemoveDEBRIS project head at Airbus—one of the members of the consortium developing the project with the University of Surrey. “Our small team of engineers and technicians have done an amazing job moving us one step closer to clearing up low Earth orbit.”

Cleaning up the junk floating above the Earth is becoming a pressing priority. Most of the objects launched into space are still orbiting the Earth—and today these objects and their by-products represent a threat in space and on the ground.

So far, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network has identified around 8,000 human-made pieces of trash floating in orbit—from dead satellites to individual bolts. Any one of those items could potentially damage existing space technology in orbit: a satellite colliding with a chunk of space junk could lead to costly disruptions in GPS, communications and weather monitoring. A spacecraft carrying humans getting hit by even the smallest scrap of debris could be catastrophic.

While there has been much discussion about space debris, RemoveDEBRIS is the first to try out a practical solution.

Read more about the quest for technologies that would help clean up space junk at ‘Space Tugs’ Could Refuel Satellites and Spacecraft in Orbit.