RemoveDEBRIS consortium captures space junk with harpoon

An international consortium led by the Surrey Space Centre has deployed the harpoon on its test satellite to capture space debris in orbit.

RemoveDEBRIS is a small satellite mission to test four technologies integral to removing space junk. Designed by Airbus UK in Stevenage, the harpoon is the third experiment to be successfully trialled, following tests of a debris-catching net as well as a LiDAR and camera-based vision navigation system. In the latest test, a metal target panel was suspended from a 1.5m boom deployed from the main satellite and the harpoon was fired at 20m per second to penetrate the simulated debris.

“This is RemoveDEBRIS’ most demanding experiment and the fact that it was a success is testament to all involved,” said Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey.

“The RemoveDEBRIS project provides strong evidence of what can be achieved with the power of collaboration – pooling together the experience across industry and the research field to achieve something truly remarkable.”

Alongside Surrey Space Centre and Airbus UK, the project also involves Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), France’s ArianeGroup, Switzerland’s CSEM, Dutch firm Innovative Solutions in Space, French and German divisions of Airbus and South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. The 100kg satellite was launched to the ISS onboard a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission on April 2 2018, then deployed from the space station on June 20 that year. Its final experiment in March 2019 will see RemoveDEBRIS deploy a drag sail that will pull it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up, a technique that could be used in future to de-orbit large pieces of space debris or inactive satellites.

"Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites,” said universities and science minister Chris Skidmore. “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.”