spaceSpace and Physics

See The Moment A Satellite Successfully Harpoons Space Debris


Madison Dapcevich

Staff Writer

clockFeb 16 2019, 01:35 UTC

University of Surrey/YouTube Screengrab

In one of the world’s first attempts to clean up space, a new satellite designed under the RemoveDEBRIS program is using its harpoon-capture system to tackle the growing problem of space garbage.

The slow-motion video shows the harpoon mechanism stab through a piece of space garbage and successfully retract it into its system. Designed by Airbus Stevenage, the harpoon is constructed of a 1.5-meter (95-foot) boom deployed from the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft with a satellite panel on the end. The harpoon can speed at a target at 20 meters (66 feet) per second in order to penetrate and capture debris.


“This is RemoveDEBRIS’ most demanding experiment and the fact that it was a success is [a] testament to all involved. The RemoveDEBRIS project provides strong evidence of what can be achieved with the power of collaboration – pooling together the experience across industry and the research field to achieve something truly remarkable,” said Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Center, in a statement

It is the third successful experiment of the project. They previously showed their ability to capture a simulated piece of debris, and then successfully identified space trash with their LiDAR and camera-based vision navigation system. Altogether, the project aims to tackle the ongoing issue of space garbage, with a particular focus on larger targets, such as satellites.

“Successful in-space demonstration of the harpoon technology is a significant step towards solving the growing issue of space debris,” said Chris Burgess, harpoon lead engineer at Airbus Defence and Space.


All of the debris in Earth’s orbit is estimated to weigh more than 8,400 tonnes (including tiny fragments). Because they can travel at speeds of up to 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles) per hour, pieces of space debris are fast enough to damage spacecraft and satellites, potentially wiping out communication systems. In 2009, a US satellite smashed into a Russian communications satellite. Though the satellite was inactive, the collision resulted in thousands of new pieces of space shrapnel. 

The last experiment is set to take place at the end of March, during which researchers will inflate a sail that will drag the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere to destroy it.

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