International Space Station launches RemoveDebris, first mission to harpoon space junk

24 Juin, 2018, 15:56 | Auteur: Therese Cote

The RemoveDEBRIS mission, led by the University of Surrey and built by the world's leading small satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), with technology on board designed by Airbus, is one of the world's first attempts to tackle the build-up of unsafe space debris orbiting the Earth.

The spacecraft is the largest payload deployed from the space station, according to NanoRacks, the Houston-based company coordinating RemoveDebris' deployment. About two hours later, University of Surrey engineers confirmed they had contacted the spacecraft. A consortium of leading space companies and research institutions, led by the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, UK. designed, built and manufactured the satellite. And even then, the harpoon is just a single tool in the veritable Swiss army knife that is RemoveDEBRIS, which also contains a net for catching space debris and a large drag sail for braking and deorbiting itself, each of which needs to be tested separately.

He continued, "RemoveDEBRIS is signifying some very thrilling active junk removal technologies that can have a vast influence on how we handle space junk moving forward".

"We expect to start with the experiments at some point in September", Aglietti told Space.com. "We all are thrilled to observe the outcomes of the experiments and the influence this initiative might have in the forthcoming years". The designer of three of the four mission technologies Airbus said in a statement. The technology will use a set of 2D cameras and a 3D lidar technology to track a second cubesat as it floats away from the main satellite.

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Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey and Principal Investigator for the mission, said: "After nearly five years of development, it is exciting to finally be in a position where we can test these extremely exciting technologies in the field".

In February 2019, the last of Airbus' three experiments will take place. Finally, in or around March of next year, the craft will deploy a drag sail in order to slow down its orbit, in order to bring it back down to Earth in far less time than it would on its own. The spacecraft is expected to de-orbit in about 10 weeks. The satellite will release net and harpoon to see if these techniques works properly in the weightless conditions and manage to clear debris in space. It includes used rockets, defunct satellites and pieces from collisions over the past 50 years of space exploration. For the third, it will attempt to grab a decoy piece of space junk with a harpoon.

However, the agency later chose to use a robotic arm instead of the harpoon and net, as the arm can be repurposed for orbital servicing missions, Luisa Innocenti, head of ESA's Clean Space Initiative, said previous year.

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