Scientists develop high-tech harpoon to clean up Earth's space junk

Updated 2018-03-19 09:41:05

Scientists in the UK are developing a high-tech harpoon that's designed to clean up Earth's growing space junk. The barbed, spear-like device, developed by experts at Airbus, is set to be tested in space next month.

In an Airbus laboratory, the high-tech space harpoon makes light work of a four centimeter-thick piece of metallic "satellite skin." Traveling at around 25 meters per second, the 1.5-meter-long harpoon pierces metal. Using spring-loaded barbs, it anchors in place.

Decades' worth of man-made junk is cluttering up Earth's orbit, posing a threat to spaceflight and the satellites we rely on for weather reports, air travel and global communications. Over 750,000 fragments larger than a centimeter are already orbiting Earth, each one could badly damage or even destroy a satellite.

In order to assess the technology in space, the team will launch a satellite into Earth's orbit, but this will later be removed. The harpoon will be carried onboard a so-called "chaser" spacecraft and shot from around 15-25 meters. Using a cable, it will then pull the defunct satellite out of orbit and towards Earth, causing it to burn up in our atmosphere.

Dead satellites pose a double danger, and the nightmare scenario would be an ever-growing cascade of collisions resulting in what's called a Kessler syndrome - cascading collisions of space debris that could render near-Earth orbits unusable to future generations.

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