Technology designed to clean up space has captured its first bit of simulated space debris in orbit. Part of the RemoveDEBRIS mission led the the University of Surrey, a cubesat designated DS-1 inflated a balloon on September 16 that acted as a target for the RemoveDEBRIS satellite, which fired a weighted net developed by Airbus from a range of seven meters (23 ft) and successfully snared the "debris."
With over 7,600 tonnes of man-made debris in orbit at any one time, space in the near vicinity of Earth is becoming an increasingly hazardous place. Made up of dormant satellites, old boosters, paint flecks, and various bits of shrapnel left over from satellite collisions, these pieces of cosmic flotsam orbit the Earth at tens of thousands of miles per hour and the smallest item can deliver the impact of a high velocity bullet to any spacecraft unlucky enough to get in the way.
To combat this, a consortium of private businesses and academic groups under the leadership of the University of Surrey has created the RemoveDEBRIS demonstrator satellite. Built and operated by Surrey Satellite Technology with co-funding by the European COmmission, the 100-kg (220-lb) satellite carries four experiments designed to acquire, capture, and deorbit space debris.
Of these, the Net Experiment is the first, which was tested last Sunday after being deployed from the ISS. Cameras allowed the hunter satellite to zero in on its target before firing the net. This wrapped around the target with the help of the weights, a bit like a shore fishing net. Had this been a real bit of debris, the RemoveDERBRIS would have hauled the target in on a line for later disposal. But for the purposes of the test, the target balloon will act as a sort of space anchor that will slow it down until it enters the Earth's atmosphere.
According to the team, RemoveDEBRIS will test its remaining technologies in the coming months. This will include a visual navigation system using cameras and Lidar for hunting and acquisition, a debris-snagging harpoon, and a drag-sail for deorbiting debris.
"We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the net technology," says Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre. "While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering and coordination between the Surrey Space Centre, Airbus and our partners – but there is more work to be done. These are very exciting times for us all."
The video below shows the space net in action.
Source: University of Surrey
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