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Harpoons May Be Used By ESA To Clear Earth’s Orbit Of Space Junk

Harpoons May Be Used By ESA To Clear Earth’s Orbit Of Space Junk

Image Caption: A tethered harpoon system to capture derelict satellites is being studied for ESA's e.DeOrbit mission, part of the Agency's Clean Space initiative to tackle orbital debris while also reducing the impacts of the space industry on the terrestrial environment. The harpoon would be fired into the satellite structure to secure it, allowing it to be reeled in and mated. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space
Image Caption: A tethered harpoon system to capture derelict satellites is being studied for ESA's e.DeOrbit mission, part of the Agency's Clean Space initiative to tackle orbital debris while also reducing the impacts of the space industry on the terrestrial environment. The harpoon would be fired into the satellite structure to secure it, allowing it to be reeled in and mated. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

The Earth’s orbit is filled with decades of launched satellites that are no longer being used, along with other space debris that pose a collision threat with ongoing missions. There are more than 17,000 trackable objects floating in Earth’s orbit. While the majority of these objects are larger than a coffee cup, even pieces of debris as small as a nut can cause catastrophic damage if it collides with a working satellite.


Our satellites monitor the planet daily, floating in the lower orbit and the only way to protect collision is to remove the space debris such as upper rocket stages and out-of-service satellites from the orbit. These large objects pose a substantial threat to the working satellites we as a society depend on in our everyday life.


The large objects weigh tons, and if a collision occurs, or if it explodes from left over fuel or partially charged batteries heated by the sun, it would leave a dangerous debris cloud floating within the orbit. This cloud could eventually impact a satellite or cause a chain reaction, potentially destroying multiple satellites.


ESA has come up with a plan for avoiding such a catastrophe. The Clean Space initiative (mission e.DeOrbit) is set to launch in 2021. It consists of sensors and automatic controls that will identify and locate potentially dangerous debris. The difficult element of the mission was how to secure the hazardous space junk. Many solutions were considered, such as using a throw net, clamping mechanisms, robotic arms and a tethered harpoon.

 

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June 25, 2014


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