RemoveDebris: UK Satellite Successfully Carries out Experiment to Capture Space Junk
The RemoveDebris experiment (Photo: University of Surrey)

An experimental cleanup satellite called RemoveDebris has successfully cast a net around a dummy satellite, a procedure that could one day be used to capture space garbage.

The experiment took place more than 300 km above the Earth. It was part of a series of trials that will showcase different technologies to remove the redundant hardware also known as space junk now circling the Earth.

Guglielmo Aglietti, the director of Surrey Space Centre, said that an operational version of the RemoveDebris technology cast out a net that remains tethered to the main satellite so the debris is dragged out of orbit. It could target large pieces of junk, including dead satellites up to 10 meters long.

Some 7,500 tonnes is said to be drifting in space – circling Earth, posing a collision hazard to operational satellite missions. At orbital speeds, even a small fleck of paint colliding with a satellite can cause critical damage.

The RemoveDebris experiment is run by a consortium of companies and researchers led by the UK's Surrey Space Centre and includes Airbus, Airbus-owned Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and France's Ariane Group.

The RemoveDebris satellite will conduct a few more experiments in the coming months, including testing navigation features that could help guide the satellite to a specific piece of debris. It will also test out a harpoon technology that could capture hulking satellites with a spear attached to a string.

There are still huge barriers to clear before operational cleanup missions can be carried out, and the most daunting is figuring out how to fund such projects.

The RemoveDebris experiment cost roughly $18 million, and it was jointly funded by the European Commission and the groups involved in the project. That's relatively cheap as far as space travel goes. But it is going to take more more than one satellite to make a significant impact on space debris which raises the cost manyfold.

Another barrier facing such a project are international treaties. International agreements prevent a project carried out by one nation to touch objects that were put into orbit by another country. For example, a UK-led cleanup project couldn't go after a defunct Russian-built rocket booster.