RemoveDEBRIS: UK Satellite Is The First To Clean Up Space Junk

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A British satellite has become the first ever to clear up some space junk, using its onboard net technology.

The aptly named RemoveDEBRIS satellite, built by a consortium of space companies and research institutions led by the Surrey Space Centre, released a video of its experimental phase of operation today, featuring the first demonstration of active debris removal technology in human history.

“We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the net technology,” said Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre, in a statement.

“While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering and coordination between the Surrey Space Centre, Airbus and our partners – but there is more work to be done. These are very exciting times for us all.”

The net capture was one of several trials that RemoveDEBRIS will be performing over the coming months. The satellite is also going to be testing a vision-based navigation system that uses cameras and LiDaR tech to analyse and observe potential pieces of debris and the first harpoon capture tech to be used in orbit.

Even the test satellite’s eventual demise will be an exercise in space clean-up – a drag-sail will bring RemoveDEBRIS into Earth’s atmosphere to destroy it, bringing its mission to a close.

For the demonstration, the net and the box it captured (which was deployed by the satellite to act as a target) will be allowed to fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. But eventually, the hope is that nets like these could be tethered to junk-clearing satellites that would tug the rubbish out of the sky.

Governments have become increasingly concerned about the amount of debris that surrounds our planet from old satellites and space missions – usually referred to as space junk.

The US Space Surveillance Network tracks 40,000 objects and it is estimated that there are more than 7,600 tonnes of ‘space junk’ in and around Earth’s orbit. Some of this stuff is large, such as used rocket stages and malfunctioning satellites. But most of it is miniscule dust particles and flecks of paint that can’t be tracked, which in space can be as dangerous as tiny bullets.

Space debris represents a very real threat to operational spacecraft and satellites and to spacewalking astronauts. It’s also possible that larger debris could be knocked back down to Earth and be big enough to survive re-entry and hit the ground, although so far, no space junk has ever caused significant damage.

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