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British test satellite uses net to capture target

A British test satellite has successfully used a net to capture a cubesat target, demonstrating the technology that someday could be used to clean space junk from Earth orbit.

“It worked just as we hoped it would,” said Prof Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre. “The target was spinning like you would expect an uncooperative piece of junk to behave, but you can see clearly that the net captures it, and we’re very happy with the way the experiment went.”

If this were a real capture, the net would be tethered to the deploying satellite, which would then tug the junk out of the sky. As this was just a demonstration, the net and the box (which was actually pushed out from RemoveDebris to act as a target) will be allowed to fall to Earth on their own. Their low altitude means it should take only a couple of months before they burn up in the atmosphere.

I have embedded below the fold a video showing the net capture. It is quite spectacular. This was one of three different experiments on RemoveDebris that are testing space junk removal methods. The next is the use of a harpoon.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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  • wodun

    So now, there is space debris with a net wrapped around it. Considering the expense, you think they would have included something to test the second part of what is required.

  • Edward

    These tests are more along the lines of proof of concept rather than a system test. It looks like the net worked as desired, not leaving more debris (i.e. not leaving broken satellite outside the net) than they were trying to eliminate.

    To do a system test would have required a larger, more expensive satellite. According to the article, the tests are being performed low enough that the satellites will reenter within a few months, so they are not leaving hazardous debris in orbit.

    Once they know which concepts work, they can then concentrate the second part of the process on that or those methods. Proof of concept tests want to be relatively inexpensive, because if the concept does not work then not much has been wasted.

  • Mitch S

    The video notes:
    “The cubesat is left to deorbit at an accelerated rate”.
    So that seems to be the mechanism to eliminate the debris.

    I’m not clear on the balloon deployed by the cubesat.
    Was the sat equipped with the balloon so it would deorbit in case the net missed?
    Anyway it’s cool the way the sat seems to struggle like a bug caught in a spider’s web.

  • Edward

    Mitch S,
    My understanding is that the balloon idea, the “drag sail” was to passively accelerate the deorbit of debris. I do not know whether the intention is for the harpoon to be on a tether so that the harpooned test article deorbits along with the mother satellite, but my recollection from previous news of this test satellite is that the “drag sail” is intended to assist reentry and destruction without the complication or expense of retrograde rockets.

    The less expensive that it is to remove junk from space, the more likely and faster that junk will be removed.

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