Surrey Uni mans the space harpoons, and NASA buys more seats on Russian rockets

UK Space spends £18m on internet sat tech

Roundup While NASA finally gave up on the Opportunity Rover, a UK-built space harpoon was fired last week, much to the annoyance of one ex-Shuttle bigwig... and earlier today, the UK agreed to fling money at satellite tech.

Moby Dick in Spaaaaaace: Harpooning space junk

The University of Surrey was chuffed to tell us late last week that the third RemoveDEBRIS test had been successful. Earlier tests had deployed a net to capture simulated debris while another had used a combination of LiDAR and camera-based visuals to identify orbiting junk.

This time around, boffins deployed a 1.5m boom from the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft with a simulated piece of satellite hanging off the end. A harpoon was fired at 20m per second to pierce the thing and demonstrate the potential for using such a device to pick up similar pieces.

Co-funded by the European Union and launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 back in April 2018 as part of the CRS-14 International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission, the 100kg satellite is operated by Surrey Satellite Technology. It was built by a consortium lead by the University of Surrey.

The harpoon was Airbus UK's contribution to the project.

The largest satellite to be the deployed from the ISS, RemoveDEBRIS has one final experiment to perform; the inflation of a large sail that engineers expect will drag the satellite to destruction in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Those on the project were chuffed with the piercing performance of the harpoon, with Chris Burgess of Airbus saying: "Successful in space demonstration of the harpoon technology is a significant step towards solving the growing issue of space debris." But others were less than delighted.

Wayne Hale, former manager of NASA's Space Shuttle program, upended the scorn bucket on the efforts, pointing out the dangers of the harpoon approach:

Hale's comments aside, debris in space is a very real issue, with 40,000 objects currently tracked in orbit (and much more too small to detect) requiring spacecraft to manoeuvre in order to avoid a mission-ending collision. A survey conducted by ESA on its Columbus lab, which has spent 11 years attached to the ISS, found "several hundred" impact craters from debris "typically smaller than 1 mm in size".

Anything larger would be a bad day for all concerned.

The US is staying in space by buying more seats on Russian rockets

NASA has so much confidence in its commercial partners, SpaceX and Boeing, that it is buying itself some more spaces on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in case the duo continue to drag their heels.

First reported in, NASA is procuring more rides for its 'nauts into 2020 despite both SpaceX and Boeing scheduled to be flinging astros at the ISS before then.

It is a sensible precaution. The delays in getting commercial crew spacecraft off the ground due to a variety of reasons from funding to it just being a bit more complicated than thought are eye-watering. Both outfits must be flying for NASA to be comfortable in not relying on Russia at least as a back-up for US access to the ISS.

The latest schedule for commercial crew has SpaceX set to launch its first demonstration mission to the ISS Not Earlier Than (NET) 2 March. It must then perform an abort demonstration test and fly a crewed mission before NASA will consider it for ISS crew rotation. Boeing's timelines for its Starliner could charitably be described as a little more fluid.

Safety is, of course, paramount. As such further delays will be inevitable as the companies are scrutinised prior to that first flight to "capture the flag" left behind by the last Shuttle mission.

The news comes as NASA's Office of the Inspector General said there would be an audit to take a close a look at how NASA is going to get 'nauts to and from the ISS.

Fun times at NASA HQ, for sure.

UK Space to fire £18m at Internet satellite coverage

UK science minister Chris Skidmore took time out from his visit to the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands today to let everyone know that £18m of funding was to be flung at UK-based OneWeb via ESA.

While OneWeb has lofty ambitions that call for a constellation of 650 satellites, scalable to 900, to be launched, providing worldwide internet coverage, the cash will initially be directed to its Sunrise programme.

Sunrise will first focus on tech for payloads, ground connections and debris removal. Players of buzzword bingo will be pleased to note that the investment will also "support novel automation techniques and artificial intelligence" in managing the constellation as well as its interaction with the ground for 5G purposes.

The first batch of 10 satellites for OneWeb's constellation are due for launch from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz on 26 February.

With Brexit looming, the UK Space Agency was at pains to point out that the overarching ESA project spans seven nations, including Canada, "and is an example of how the UK will continue to work across Europe and globally".

After all, the UK is a global leader in satellite tech. As the UK Space Agency remarked, last month saw the launch of Eutelsat Quantum, a revolutionary software-defined spacecraft funded in large part by the UK government.

Surrey Satellite put together the platform. Final assembly and testing, however, happened in France. ®

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