Space junk is becoming a big problem on our planet. As more and more satellites enter orbit, debris in orbit and disused satellites pose a risk to manned space missions and critical satellites in orbit. Airbus has a plan to help get rid of space junk and old satellites using a harpoon.
The harpoon projectile measures one meter and would be attached by a strong leash to a chase spacecraft. Once the target debris or satellites were strung and under control, that chase spacecraft would drag its prey into the atmosphere, where it would burn on re-entry.
If you're wondering how big the problem really is, approximately 20,000 items that are 10 cm or more are currently being tracked. The harpoon was designed to capture some of the largest parts, including the extinct European Envisat observation platform.
Harpoon project manager Alastair Wayman says that if the harpoon can handle Envisat, it can handle other types of spaceship abandonment including higher stages of rockets that are still in orbit. In the tests, the harpoon has been fired using compressed air panels representing materials with which the satellites are built.
These panels are usually in the range of composite panels 3 cm thick with a lot of aluminum. It is said that the harpoon pierces these panels "like a hot knife through butter". When the tip of the harpoon pierces the skin, the prongs open to prevent it from coming out. A smaller version of the harpoon will be tested on a mission that will launch next month called RemoveDebris. This type of garbage cleaning is not free of risks, care must be taken to prevent pressurized tanks on board the spacecraft from exploding and becoming an even greater hazard.