Harpoons are the Newest, Old Idea for Dealing with Space Junk

Imagine a time when concerned citizens actually cheer for a harpoon as it thumps into its target. Sound unlikely? The use of harpoons could be one solution for clearing out the space junk floating around our planet. We’ve covered some other options with earlier posts.

Astrium has plans on the drawing board to use harpoons mounted on so-called “chaser satellites” to clean up Earth’s orbit. The chaser sats will have a regular orbital patrol and will seek out junk as it flies along.

Harpoon

The old weapon of whale hunters could be used to clean up space junk. Photo by Tommy Bee.

When some potential space trash has been identified, the satellites will launch a harpoon to capture it, then burn thrusters to descend toward Earth before releasing the trash to burn up in the atmosphere. The chaser sats will be assisted by human controllers, using images provided by cameras built into the satellites.

According to the company, the biggest challenge is determining how hard to launch a harpoon. If it’s launched without enough oomph, it’ll just bounce off the junk. Too much power and the harpoon could tear parts from the target, or even cause some older satellites to explode, which would only exacerbate the problem.

“Historically, one of the great sources of debris has been the explosion of fuel tanks in spent rocket stages,” said Dr. Jaime Reed from Astrium UK. “We obviously don’t want to be the cause of that, so our harpoon has a crushable cylinder. It’s like a piston, and as soon as the harpoon hits the satellite wall, it rapidly decelerates, ensuring we don’t travel right through the spacecraft, puncturing the tanks.”

With something in the neighborhood of 500,000 bits of junk floating around the Earth, something will have to be done to clean it up. The crew of International Space Station already spends a good chunk of its time dodging what amounts to man-made meteorites. Let’s hope the problem is dealt with before something truly unfortunate happens.

Below you’ll find a video about space junk.

Source: BBC

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