Garbage collection – in SPAAACE: Net snaffles junk in first step to clean up Earth's orbiting litter

EU-funded gizmo clings to trash like a face hugger

Video Scientists have managed to capture a small floating human-made satellite using a net deployed from a spacecraft orbiting the Earth for the first time.

The plan is to develop this technology to collect space clutter, and clean up our home world's orbit.

Space junk circling our planet is a growing problem as more spacecraft are sent up into orbit, increasing the changes of a collision. Some of the debris is natural, such as small chunks of meteoroid, and some of it is artificial, such as the hunks of material leftover from old probes and rockets. It is estimated that there are more than 20,000 pieces artificial debris each larger than a baseball floating around Earth, all traveling at tremendous speeds.

They travel up to 17,500 miles per hour, in fact, fast enough that a small nugget could wreck sensitive structures. Luckily, there haven’t been that many catastrophic crashes with cosmic garbage, but a few windows on space shuttles have had to be replaced due to damage caused by debris as small as flecks of paint.

The European Commission has funded a number of projects promising to clean up space junk. The RemoveDEBRIS gizmo developed by researchers from Airbus and the University of Surrey in England is just one of them.

Having blasted off into space, RemoveDEBRIS on Sunday successfully snatched a lump of space trash – specifically, a no longer needed small CubeSat – using a sprawling net shaped like the Star of David. Its motion resembled that of a face hugger from the Alien movies, in that it lunged and clutched onto its prey. This mechanism is hoped to form the basis of future nets that will sweep up space litter around Earth, clearing the way for safer launches.

Watch it for yourself, below:

Youtube Video

“We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the net technology,” said Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, on Wednesday.

"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."

It has taken six years of testing in parabolic flights, special drop towers, and thermal vacuum chambers, to reach this stage, said Ingo Retat, Airbus RemoveDEBRIS project head.

The next phase is to snare another CubeSat, but this time using cameras and LiDAR technology to target objects with better precision, and a special harpoon to capture them. A drag-sail will also bring the debris back into Earth’s atmosphere to be destroyed. ®

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