The mission to clear space junk using harpoons, guide sails and dragnets called the RemoveDebris has started with its experiments in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and has been launched from the International Space Station (ISS).
RemoveDebris is the first time attempt to actively clear space debris from LEO—about 160 to 2,000 km above Earth. Estimates by NASA point out that there are at least 500,000 pieces of junk up there and about 20,000 that is about the size of a softball, or bigger than a cricket ball and travelling at over 28,000 km per hour. That is dangerous enough to obliterate satellites. At those velocities, even millimetre sized flecks of paint can cause serious damage to objects in space.
Considering how much more frequent space launches are going to get in the coming years, cleaning up space is a real priority. There are many proposals put forward by several space agencies and private companies, and some of them are not very realistic and even outlandish, also, most of these plans are still in their idea phase. The RemoveDebris is the first actual attempt to go to space and clear the junk up there, reports Space.com.
The ISS has used its 17-metre-long robotic Canadarm2 to release the RemoveDebris to start its mission. This is the largest payload that the ISS has launched till now, notes the report. The mission was envisioned and put together by scientists and engineers at the University of Surrey which confirmed that they have contact with the spacecraft about two hours after deployment.
"We expect to start with the experiments at some point in September," Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey and principal investigator of the mission, told Space.com.
"We will need three to four weeks for each experiment," he said. One of the reasons for this, said Aglietti, is because the team wants to also get really sharp, HD video of the entire experiment and for that, "you need to wait for the spacecraft to be in the right position and to have the right illumination."
Airbus helped build three of the four experiments on board the RemoveDebris spacecraft, notes the report.
For the experiment, the team has sent its own junk to test and recapture it, notes the report. A small cubesat will be launched from the spacecraft after it drifts about 5 to 7 meters, a net will be deployed and it is designed to catch the satellite and drag it into the atmosphere, where it will burn up.
The next experiment will take place in December, says the report where a new vision and lidar based navigation tech will be tested. More experiments will follow in 2019, with the harpoon test scheduled for February. In March 2019, the RemoveDebris will then deploy its sails to direct itself back into the atmosphere where it will burn up.
"The sail produces a significant amount of drag so that the spacecraft slows down and its orbit decays much faster than it would without the sail," said Aglietti. The spacecraft is expected to de-orbit in about 10 weeks.