The first-ever satellite intended to round up space junk has been put into orbit for testing, Space.com is reporting.
The lovingly-named RemoveDebris was dispatched from the International Space Station at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Using robotic arm, lovingly-named Canadarm2 by its Canadian creators, among other tools at its disposal, the craft is intended to harvest space debris, or space junk, as it’s sometimes called.
Two hours after deployment, engineers at the craft’s command headquarters at the University of Surrey, in the United Kingdom, confirmed they’d made contact with the satellite.
According to Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey and principal scientist behind the mission, researchers hope to see results by the fall.
“We expect to start with the experiments at some point in September. We will need three to four weeks for each experiment. That’s because we want to capture a high-definition video of each experiment, and to have a nice video, you need to wait for the spacecraft to be in the right position and to have the right illumination.”
What will those experiments be? The first, scheduled for September, is for the craft to release a sort-of dummy satellite, called a cubesat, and let it drift away a few feet, before ejecting a net and trying to grab it that way.
In the second experiment, scheduled for December, is intended to test the craft’s vision capabilities – after all, the craft can’t remove space junk if it can’t “see” it. For the third, it will attempt to grab a decoy piece of space junk with a harpoon. Finally, in or around March of next year, the craft will deploy a drag sail in order to slow down its orbit, in order to bring it back down to Earth in far less time than it would on its own. After all, leaving a spacecraft, intended to harness space junk, to float around in space as itself a piece of space junk kind of misses the point.
According to ITV, there are an estimated 6,800 tons of space debris in low-Earth orbit. Junk satellites, tools accidentally dropped by Gemini astronauts, even chips of paint, are known to be orbiting the planet at speeds of up to 17,000 miles per hour. Should one of those come into contact with a manned spacecraft, the results would be catastrophic.
Another problem from space junk – which at this point is more theoretical than real, but is nevertheless a concern for the space community – is the matter of those bits of trash falling back to Earth. Though the odds of space junk hitting a human on the ground are infinitesimally low, it could still happen. In the 1970’s, Skylab fell to Earth, portions of it landing in Australia. Similarly, just this year the Chinese satellite Tiangong 1 crashed back to Earth, fortunately landing in the middle of the ocean.