The amount of drifting space debris that we have in our orbit is becoming a problem. This orbiting debris can pose a serious threat to our planet and the International Space Station. Other countries are also aiding in the efforts to come up with ideas to get rid of the pesky space junk where China is still determined on creating a laser than can zap the litter out of the sky. On a more realistic note, Airbus has created and is testing a space harpoon that can be used to drag the debris right out of the orbit and return it to Earth.
The planned solution is a small vehicle that is launched into space. It would be in the Earth’s orbit looking for debris or satellites that no longer function. The vehicle would then launch the harpoon and pierce the metal shell. The barbs on the harpoon would secure the debris and bring it back to the vehicle. To make sure the debris doesn’t end up taking space on Earth they use thrusters to rapidly decay the Earth’s orbit. The heat and speed of entering the atmosphere incinerates the debris, destroying it completely.
Airbus’s development of the harpoon has stemmed from trying to capture the Envisat. The Envisat is an Earth observation platform that died in orbit in 2012. The main challenge of retrieving it is that it weighs nearly 9 tonnes and has been floating in our orbit since it went offline. The clean-up task of the Envisat has been a troublesome problem but Airbus is confident that their space harpoon will be able to resolve the issue.
The fist testing of the Airbus space harpoon will be in April this year where the RemoveDebris mission is testing several different debris removal techniques. The goal of the RemoveDebris mission is to demonstrate and test removal technology and test novel technologies in a low-cost mission scenario. Whether or not these tests will be successful will be the foundation for future debris removal technology.
The harpoon that the RemoveDebris mission will be using is a smaller scale than the one that is planned for the Envisat. The smaller scale model is to gauge the usefulness of the device. If it does prove to be successful it won’t be too long before it gets implemented in future debris removal missions.