Space test for harpoon designed to capture dangerous debris orbiting Earth

The experiment follows last year's trial of a net to grab space junk.

A harpoon designed to spear through space junk and capture it has been tested in space for the first time.

The RemoveDebris mission is hoping to address the issue of waste material in space left over by past rockets and other deployments, with between 16,000 and 20,000 pieces being tracked orbiting Earth.

Airbus carried out the experiment last Friday, where a harpoon pierces through the skin of a sample piece of debris being dangled on a boom at about one and a half metres away from the spacecraft.

Once hit, a barb is deployed on the debris to secure it.

The harpoon is still a number of years away from operational use, but the experiment is a major step towards cleaning up space junk, as the number of spacecraft launches continue to increase.

Astronaut Tim Peake previously revealed the damage that orbital junk can cause spacecraft, when he shared an image of a chipped window panel on board the International Space Station in 2016.

Damage caused by debris on ISS in 2016
The type of damage debris can cause, as shown by Tim Peake during his time on the ISS in 2016 (Esa/Nasa)

It is believed that something as small as a paint chip could have caused the damage, as it hurtled towards the ISS.

When in full operation, scientists aim to make the harpoon fire at debris up to 30 metres away.

Engineers back on Earth are still trying to work out how the system can be used to target moving objects.

The harpoon, which is a joint initiative including British efforts from Airbus, the University of Surrey and the Surrey Satellite Technology firm, is capable of travelling at 20 metres per second.

How the RemoveDebris satellite works (PA Graphics)

A previous RemoveDebris experiment demonstrated how a net could be used to catch potentially dangerous pieces of rubbish orbiting the Earth.

Next, the group are expected to test the drag sail part of the test on March 12.

Reacting to the development, Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites. 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.

“This mission is a powerful example of the UK’s expertise in space technology and that by working together, our world-class universities and innovative companies can hugely contribute to the Government’s aims for a highly skilled economy through our modern Industrial Strategy.”

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