Three years ago, Swiss research institute EPFL announced its plans to build a spacecraft that could grab orbital debris and then carry it back towards Earth, burning up in the atmosphere with it on its way down. Called CleanSpace One, the satellite was depicted at the time as using a claw-like grasping tool. Now, however, EPFL has announced that it will utilize a folding conical net to essentially gobble up bits of space garbage.
When it's launched – possibly as early as 2018 – CleanSpace One's first target will be the now-defunct SwissCube satellite. Because the 10 x 10-cm (3.9 x 3.9-in) object will likely be spinning, swallowing it in a net should be easier than trying to grab it with a claw.
Additionally, however, SwissCube's spinning action will make it more difficult to image, as its surfaces will alternately be brilliantly sunlit or hidden in shadow. That's why CleanSpace One's computer vision system will be running algorithms that account for variables such as the angle of the sun, the dimensions of the target, the speed at which that target is moving, and the rate at which CleanSpace One itself is spinning. High dynamic range cameras will also allow it to simultaneously expose for both bright and dark surfaces.
Once SwissCube is within range, CleanSpace One will then extend its net around the satellite, subsequently closing that net back down with the target inside.
The net was designed by students at the Western Switzerland University of Applied Sciences. Animation of it in action can be seen in the following video.