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The competition heats up: A European Space Agency mission to test technologies for removing space junk will launch sometime next year.
Presented at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition this week, and led by the Surrey Space Centre, the systems included a net, harpoon and drag sail, which scientists have incorporated into a test platform for launch into space. The platform will also carry “artificial junk” in the form of small satellites known as CubeSats.
Once the platform is launched into space, a CubeSat will be released. “The CubeSat will be ejected from the platform and then we’ll fire the net at it,” said Forshaw. The CubeSat, hopefully encased in the net, will then fall back towards Earth and burn up. In the case of the harpoon, the researchers have attached a target made of spacecraft material to a carbon-fibre boom that extends from the platform. “When the harpoon impacts it, it is actually going to simulate a real spacecraft being hit,” said Forshaw.
At the end of the mission the third system, a drag sail will be deployed. Attached to the platform, the sail will speed up its return to Earth where it will burn up in the atmosphere. Similar systems have been proposed for future satellites to allow them to be disposed of without leaving space junk.
With the Chinese, NASA, and private companies all developing robotic missions to either clean up space junk or repair satellites, the competition to do this work is going to get very intense in the next decade.