Airbus tests harpoon designed to capture debris orbiting Earth

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

With between 16,000 and 20,000 pieces being tracked orbiting Eart, the RemoveDebris mission is hoping to address the issue of debris in space left over by past rockets and other deployments.

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.

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)

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.

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.

RemoveDEBRIS
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.

Chris Price
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