Europe develops net gun to capture space junk

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The competition heats up: A Polish company has developed a gun for firing a net to capture space junk, and has demonstrated its operation by capturing a flying drone at a space junk conference.

There is a video at the link showing the capture. They have also tested this technology on a vomit comet, and hope to launch a full scale model by 2023.


  • BSJ

    I guess I don’t get it. So, a tumbling satellite gets wrapped in a net. So now you’ve got a tumbling satellite and net.

    Unless that net is tethered to something with rockets attached to it, how can it stabilize the satellite? If the net is attached to something with rockets, how does it effectively prevent itself from becoming entangled in its own net that is now attached to a tumbling satellite?

  • Edward

    Funny you should ask. I have been thinking about this problem for a while and have looked at a few patents, as I am thinking of patenting my own idea. I am concerned about many of these ideas, as well as my own, as they have the potential of making matters worse by causing their targets to come apart and result in more debris, not less.

    The main idea behind the patents I have examined is to deorbit the debris, removing it from space and having it burn up during reentry. Some of the patents, with the net in the article, only handle part 1 of this process making physical contact with the debris, not the reentry problem. The article only mentions the reentry maneuver without explaining how the tumbling is dealt with, or even whether it needs to be stopped; maybe it can continue to spin within the net on the end of a rope, while the rocket portion does a reentry burn.

    Interestingly, many satellites have materials that could be useful to future space-based manufacturers, so grappling them for transport to a manufacturing facility may end up being preferred to deorbit (assuming salvage is legally allowed with space flotsam).

    Since carbon is not common on the Moon, and since carbon-carbon composites are common satellite construction material, it may be worth transporting that carbon to a future lunar base or colony for use as fertilizer for crops.

  • pzatchok

    How about a simple, self supporting and semi permanent solution?

    Large objects do not need to be captured and de-orbited so much as just nudged into a lower orbit.

    Harpoon a rocket to it and just push or drag it to a lower orbit.

    As for all that little stuff that everyone is really worried about. How about a satellite based laser that is in a higher orbit than the junk you want to clear away.

    The satellite tracks and targets everything smaller than a shoebox and fires on it as it passes.
    The laser vaporizes a bit of the junk on the side away from the earth. The result being that the object is pushed into an ever lower orbit.

    It doesn’t even have to push it all the way in on the first pass but can take all the time it needs and as many hits as it needs.

    At a low enough power the Earths atmosphere should be more than enough to protect us from any misses.

  • BSJ

    But wouldn’t any rope attached to the net wind itself about the tumbling satellite, in effect, reeling in the net launching vehicle?

    Even if you could align the net launcher with the axis of the satellite’s tumbling motion, that axis would unpredictability change as soon as the net made contact with the satellite!

  • PeterF

    The Company can be named: TA DA!

    Vacuum Cleaners!
    Or maybe even “SafeTkleen” (sort of like in the “Expanse”)

    The challenge is to collect for reuse/recycle/repurpose orbital “space junk”
    Hazardous/Toxic waste isn’t a problem because its hazardous or toxic. Its a problem because its WASTED!
    All the “space junk” is valuable because its already been refined and because of the expense of lifting it to orbit. As much as possible should be collected and stored for eventual transport to the manufacturing facility at the LaGrange space dock.

  • Dick Eagleson

    I share all the reservations expressed here about the practicality of this particular idea, but also share the sense that the proper fate of trackable pieces of space debris is to be recycled, in space. An article of mine that appeared in the May 9 Space Review makes the case that space debris should be the initial target of subscale prototype asteroid mining hardware.

    Pzatchok’s laser idea parallels my own thinking on how to deal with space debris pieces too small to track. In my case, I concluded that attempting to use the laser beam to track as well as brake the debris pieces was likely wasted effort. A powerful lidar could track smaller objects than an Earth-based radar, but not usefully down to say the paint chip and flyspeck size range. The laser should, instead, simply collimate its beam to perhaps a few inches across and raster scan it in a segment of space known to be clear of larger objects, dead or active. Over time, this would eliminate all debris smaller than the minimum size trackable from the ground leaving the latter to be policed up and recycled by prototype asteroid miners and/or purpose-built salvage tugs.

  • pzatchok

    Dick Eagleson

    The raster scan idea is a great one. I agree it should be used.

    But there is a lot of stuff up there larger than paint chips but still small enough to pass through a net of some type.

    I think both ideas have their place.

    As for the idea of salvaging the sats.
    Nice idea but the safety aspect with any trace fuels on board. Who wants to bring it onto their station and start to take it apart?
    Buy the time we got any recycling facility up there the technology would be so far out of date all thats left to do with the things is to melt them down in to raw materials. And thats a real closed environment problem.

    Plus things fall out of the Lagrange points. They are not perfectly stable.

  • Edward

    BSJ asked: “But wouldn’t any rope attached to the net wind itself about the tumbling satellite, in effect, reeling in the net launching vehicle?”

    Not necessarily. If you have a bearing between the net and the end of the rope, you can allow for spin, like a yoyo or a fishing lure. The rocket on the other end of the rope would be able to deal with the spinning mass by thrusting in retrograde direction, and the mass might act similar to a yoyo in a low G environment until the reentry speed was reached. Then the rocket releases the rope or the net, and moves on to its next target.

    A recycler may not have to bring hardware inside the manned section until after it has been safed, or maybe he does all his recycling “outdoors,” perhaps “on the patio” or in a “shed.” A lot might be able to be done remotely.

    L4 and L5 are fairly stable, although I do not know the long-term effects of the sun continuously tugging on things there. L1, L2, and L3 are inherently unstable, so stationkeeping propellant would be needed to maintain those orbits. Then again, geostationary orbits require occasional stationkeeping due to the continuous tugging by the Moon and the sun.

    pzatchok and Dick,
    I think you have a good idea, and you guys might want to get together to patent it. It certainly has fewer problems than my idea and some of the other patents. For one, you wouldn’t have the problem of generating additional debris. Also, it works on eliminating the small stuff, and few of the patents I examined dealt with the small stuff.

    Nice article. It seems to me that we cannot count on governments to do the kind of development that we had imagined half a century ago, but we can count on private companies to figure out how to make a profit doing so (profit being the reward for finding ways to do things better). As you wrote in the article, “the key to the human future in space is to start small, start cheap, and start close.”

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