RemoveDEBRIS successfully removes debris

Source: NASA

By Holly Giles

We all know there is an issue with litter in our city, however, there is a much lesser known fact that there is an estimated 7,600 metric tons of litter orbiting Earth right now. More than sixty years of space activity has left this vast amount of rubbish in Earth’s orbit; including old rocket parts and fragments of broken satellites, all of which pose a serious risk to the international space station and working satellites in orbit. To address this issue the International Space Station has released a new type of debris-hunting satellite called the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft.

The technology has been developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and the Surrey Space Centre, where this week the satellite tested out its harpoon for the first time. They released a video showing the satellite detonating a harpoon system which fires at 45 mph to skewer the target piece of rubbish. The satellite harpooned the item and via an attached wire, to prevent it flying off into space, safely brought the item back. This is exciting progress as it validates the RemoveDEBRIS’ ability to deal with space junk.

There is a consortium of research currently going on in this area with ten partners across Europe and South Africa. In response to the recent results Guglielmo Aglietti, the director of the Surrey Space Centre for the University of Surrey and principal investigator for RemoveDEBRIS, said: “This is RemoveDEBRIS’ most demanding experiment and the fact that it was a success is testament to all involved. 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”.

So what’s next for RemoveDEBRIS? The satellite will now undergo its final test, looking into its fall into Earth. Professor Aglietti says after this, it’s “up to our partners in industry as to where they take these technologies”. With thousands of satellites expected to be launched in the next few years some serious clean-up is needed for our skies. Knowing scientists in Surrey are making such progress brings that clean-up away from a dream and closer to reality.