Think of it like spring cleaning, but in space.
A “RemoveDEBRIS” satellite set to launch today will demonstrate new ideas for clearing out space junk near the International Space Station.
Housed in a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule and launched via the 213-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the RemoveDEBRIS vehicle features mini-satellites, harpoons, nets, and other experimental tools for nabbing the scrap floating in orbit.
The European Commission-funded mission, led by the University of Surrey and developed alongside a consortium of leading space companies, is a first step in the effort to clean up the estimated 40,000 pieces of space junk currently orbiting Earth – a collection including everything from old satellites and spent rocket stages to nuts and bolts.
Such “junk” is the result of 60 years of activity in space. The U.S. Space Surveillance network has tracked estimates of more than 7,600 tons of material in and around Earth’s orbit.
At speeds sometimes approaching 30,000 miles per hour, the debris threatens space assets like satellites. The International Space Station itself, equipped with protective Whipple shielding, features maneuvering ability to avoid the orbiting remnants.
The satellite is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral, FL-based Kennedy Space Center at 4:30 p.m. EDT today.
After reaching the International Space Station later in the week and being stored for a short period of time, the remotely manipulated RemoveDEBRIS vehicle will be removed from the Dragon cargo capsule and sent out to space via a robotic arm and the NanoRacks Kaber deployment technology.
Once released from the ISS, the spacecraft will facilitate four demonstrations. (See the conceptual space-debris-removal demos on Tech Briefs TV.)
In the first of two capture experiments, a net will be discharged at a deployed miniature satellite, also known as a CubeSat. The second capture idea – a harpoon! – will be aimed at a target plate made of representative satellite materials.
The third experiment, a vision-based navigation test, is scheduled to demonstrate camera- and lidar-guided rendezvous navigation to a positioned CubeSat.
Finally, the RemoveDEBRIS plans to showcase its de-orbiting ability, sending out a 10-square-meter sail to slow down the spacecraft and ensure that the vehicle burns up upon reentry into the atmosphere.
“The main achievement of the partners of this project has been to transform the concepts in real engineering devices, and now to give a real practical demonstration of their working,” said Professor G. Aglietti, Director of Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey.
RemoveDEBRIS is a mission funded jointly by the European Commission (EU) and 10 partners. The University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre (University of Surrey) leads a consortium consisting of Airbus; Ariane Group (France); Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd. (UK); Innovative Solutions In Space (Netherlands); CSEM (Switzerland); Inria (France); and Stellenbosch University (South Africa).
“Ideally this project is a stepping stone towards a future ‘service,’” Aglietti told Tech Briefs. “If our demonstrations prove that these technologies are viable, for us would it would be great if real commercial companies supported by space agencies could take this work forward and articulate a successful business case for going to remove some real space debris.”
Watch the four demonstrations on Tech Briefs TV. Which do you think will work best? Share your comments below.