The SpaceX Dragon that reached the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, April 4, had in its cargo apart from a number of scientific equipment and astronaut supplies an experimental space junk collection device.
This is the first time an experiment is being carried out in space to clear junk.
This device was built by a team of researchers from the University of Surrey. It is a proof-of-concept instrument called the RemoveDEBRIS, reported Futurism. It will be used to conduct a number of experiments in low-Earth orbit in capturing and destroying space debris.
A lot of attention was given to the Tiangong-1 Chinese space station falling to Earth last week, but the problem in space is not just large bus-sized junk. In fact, it is the small, invisible junk -- like flecks of paint, screws and other like micro-junk -- that really causes major damage to satellites up in space.
A recent report by the Space Debris Office (SDO) of the European Space Agency has estimated that on average, about 100 tonnes of space junk burn up in the atmosphere every year and that there is, on average, one satellite crashing to the Earth a week.
Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said: "It is important to remember that a few significant collisions have already happened. Therefore, to maintain the safety of current and future space assets, the issue of the control and reduction of the space debris has to be addressed.
"We believe the technologies we will be demonstrating with RemoveDEBRIS could provide feasible answers to the space junk problem - answers that could be used on future space missions in the very near future."
RemoveDEBRIS is the first attempt at cleaning up the space just above the atmosphere. The device weighs about 100 kg, and experiments using it will begin by the end of May or in early June, noted Futurism. Six crew members aboard the ISS will unpack it and see how it works.
After unpacking it, the crew will transfer the instruments to Japan's Kibo Lab's airlock, and from there it will be launched into space using a robotic arm. When released to go about its business, RemoveDEBRIS will be the largest satellite launched from the ISS, noted the report.
There are three tests planned for RemoveDEBRIS -- net capture, where a dummy cubesat will be released and captured using a net; visual capture, where a dummy piece of junk will be released and pursued in orbit; and harpoon capture, where a target will be shot at by the device. After the tests are completed, the satellite will open up sails and direct itself back to Earth, where it will burn up on reentry.
According to NASA, there are over 500,000 pieces of space debris right now orbiting Earth. About 6,800 tons of waste float above the planet. Each and every one of them is traveling at blistering speeds, making them all seriously dangerous.