GIF: University of Surrey/Gizmodo

A small satellite has captured a piece of space debris using a claw-tipped harpoon. The test represents an important technological achievement given our mounting space junk problem.

Called RemoveDEBRIS, the research project is an effort to test various space junk removal technologies. The project, which involves a 220-pound satellite in low Earth orbit, is being led by the University of Surrey and involves a consortium of space companies and research institutions, with some funding coming from the European Union, according to a statement.

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During a recent test, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite shot a harpoon at a 4-inch-wide (10 centimeters) target held aloft by a five-foot-long (1.5-meter) boom, reports the BBC. The harpoon struck the aluminium honeycomb-like target at a speed of 65 feet per second (20 meters per second). In a video released by Surrey University, the claws at the tip of the harpoon can be seen digging into the target upon contact, enabling a firm lock. The object was torn away from the boom, which wasn’t a problem given that the harpoon is tethered by a wire to the satellite.

In a statement, Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre, said this particular RemoveDEBRIS experiment was “the most demanding” yet, and a “testament to all involved.”

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This is the third successful test for RemoveDEBRIS. Previously, the satellite deployed a net to capture a simulated piece of space junk, and a laser-based camera system was used to locate a floating chunk of space debris. A fourth and final experiment will be conducted in March, when the satellite will pump the brakes by deploying a small sail. With its velocity greatly diminished, the satellite, and in theory anything it has captured, will fall back toward Earth and burn up on re-entry.

This latest achievement, in which a harpoon was used to snatch a piece of debris while in orbit, is an important one given all the trash that’s accumulating in low Earth orbit.

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The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates that around 29,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters are currently floating in Earth orbit, some at speeds approaching 10 kilometers per second, or 6 miles per second.

Solutions like the ones presented by the RemoveDEBRIS project could help us clean the space directly above us before a disaster happens. Pieces from discarded rockets, lost tools, broken chunks of spacecraft, and other objects have the potential to smash into valuable equipment. Through such collisions, space junk will create even more space junk.

“Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites,” said Chris Skidmore, the UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, in the statement. “This inspiring project shows that UK experts are coming up with answers for this potential problem using a harpoon, a tool people have used throughout history.”

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So kudos to the RemoveDEBRIS team, who are now three for three with their tests. Fingers are crossed for the March experiment.

[University of Surrey, BBC]