A UK satellite has performed a successful test of a net designed to capture space junk, revealed in stunning footage taken from orbit.
The RemoveDebris satellite, built by the University of Surrey in the UK, was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April 2018. Later in June, NASA released the small satellite – weighing 100 kilograms (220 pounds) – from the ISS.
Now the spacecraft has successfully deployed a net, to capture a target CubeSat, while orbiting at an altitude of about 300 kilometers (190 miles). An amazing video shows the moment the net was fired and wrapped around the target, which you can watch below.
"It worked just as we hoped it would," Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre which is running the mission, told BBC News.
"The target was spinning like you would expect an uncooperative piece of junk to behave, but you can see clearly that the net captures it, and we're very happy with the way the experiment went."
In the video, the target is about 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) in front of the RemoveDebris spacecraft, with the net completely covering the target box. The net and box should re-enter the atmosphere in a few months on their own.
The ultimate goal of this experimental mission is to test out techniques to remove space junk. Thousands of pieces of debris that could pose a danger to spacecraft are orbiting Earth, with little hope of getting rid of them save for them burning up in the atmosphere.
A number of ideas have been proposed over the years to remove space junk, such as using lasers to push debris into a lower orbit. RemoveDebris is testing out a number of these proposals.
Aside from the net test, the satellite will also try firing a harpoon in early 2019 at a target at the end of an extendable arm – another way that debris could be de-orbited. At the end of its mission, it will also deploy a sail that will increase its atmospheric drag and bring it back into the atmosphere. And it has a camera on board to better monitor space junk.
Using a net or harpoon, it might be possible for future spacecraft to sidle up to debris and send it back into the atmosphere. Alternatively, satellites could carry a sail with them like that on RemoveDebris, which is deployed at the end of the mission to bring them back into the atmosphere.
Last year a Japanese mission failed at its attempt to clean up space junk using a tether to increase drag. RemoveDebris, however, has shown that there might be a way to clean up Earth orbit, and there’s more yet to come from the mission.