Mission Will Unleash An Arsenal To Fight Space Junk

The "RemoveDebris" satellite is armed with nets, harpoons, and a drag sail

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk are orbiting Earth, and the problem is only getting worse over time.
Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk are orbiting Earth, and the problem is only getting worse over time.ESA

Space junk is a real problem. Unlike your cluttered closet, the bits and pieces that are clogging up Earth's orbit have the potential to cause millions of dollars' worth of damage. Speeding around at speeds topping 15,000 miles per hour, even a tiny crumb can blast a hole in the hull of an expensive spacecraft. And that's just the small stuff.

To help combat this problem, the European Union plans to launch a junk-collecting satellite next year. Named "RemoveSat," it will be armed with nets, harpoons, and a drag sail, to see how well each method of garbage collection actually works in space.

Only, instead of collecting actual junk, RemoveDebris will carry its own test "junk" into orbit. The Guardian reports that first it'll release a tiny CubeSat and try to capture it with a net.

removesat net
Animation of RemoveSat taking down some space junk with a net.animation

Then, RemoveSat will extend a carbon-fiber target attached to a boom and see if it can hit it with a harpoon, to stimulate taking out a spacecraft.

After those two demos, RemoveSat itself will act as the space junk. It'll deploy a sail that's meant to slow it down, causing it to drop into a lower and lower orbit until it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. In the end, the noble little satellite will sacrifice itself to gather data that could save future spacecraft.