NASA has deployed a UK-led satellite from the International Space Station (ISS) that will test out a new method to remove space debris from orbit.
Called RemoveDebris, the $17-million satellite was launched from the station with the help of the CanadaArm robotic arm. It weighs 100 kilograms (220 pounds), making it the largest satellite every deployed from the ISS, and has a net and a harpoon on board. It was launched to the ISS on a Falcon 9 rocket in April.
For the next month or so, ground controllers at the Surrey Space Centre in Guildford will monitor the satellite, and check it is in working order. Then, they will start to conduct experiments.
“RemoveDEBRIS is demonstrating some extremely exciting active debris removal technologies that could have a major impact to how we manage space debris moving forward,” Conor Brown, External Payloads Manager for Nanoracks, who deployed the satellite, said in a statement.
RemoveDebris won’t be trying to snag existing junk, but instead has two small “cubesats” on board that it will eject and track. According to the BBC, it will monitor one of those with laser ranging and camera technology to practice identifying debris. It will also deploy a target on the end of an arm, and attempt to fire a harpoon at it to see if it can attach. For the other cubesat, it will attempt to capture it with a net.
To do this, the cubesat will inflate a balloon, making it a larger target area. Then, the satellite will fire a net at the balloon. Once it hits, weights at the end of the net will wrap around, with motor driven winches tightening the neck.
At the end of the mission RemoveDebris will deploy its own sail, to increase its atmospheric drag. This should bring it back into the atmosphere, where it will burn up, another potential method for removing debris from orbit.
The goal of these tests is to find out if one or both of these methods might be useful for de-orbiting debris. Space junk is a growing problem, with thousands of pieces of defunct or active satellites remaining in orbit.
Some of these can pose a danger to other satellites, but we usually just have to wait for them to be dragged into the atmosphere for them to be removed. Being able to actively remove debris would be a huge benefit. Other ideas have included using lasers to try and push satellites into a lower orbit.