A refrigerator-sized spacecraft could eventually help in cleaning up dangerous debris in space. In a test, RemoveDebris cast a net around a dummy satellite to simulate a technique that may someday capture space debris.
The experimental device is designed to test space junk cleanup methods in orbit. In addition to the debris-catching net, the spacecraft also features a small harpoon and a drag snail.
The orbital experiment, which was carried out on Sunday, Sept. 16, is believed to be the first successful demonstration of space cleanup technology.
RemoveDebris mission principal investigator Guglielmo Aglietti, from the University of Surrey in the UK, said that the mission went very well.
“The net deployed nicely, and so did the structure attached to the CubeSat,” he told Space. “We are now downloading the data, which will take a few weeks, since we only can do that when we have contact with the satellite. But so far, everything looks great.”
The target for the test was not actually a space junk but a small CubeSat released by the main RemoveDebris spacecraft before the experiment.
Aglietti said that they could not use an actual piece of space junk since international law still considers the defunct satellites as the property of the entity that launched them. This means that it is illegal to catch other people’s space debris.
Aglietti said that an operational version of the technology would cast out a net that is tethered to the main satellite so a debris can be dragged out of orbit. The spacecraft could capture large pieces of junk such as dead satellites measuring up to 10 meters long.
CNN said that more experiments will be conducted in the coming months, which would include testing the navigation features that can help guide the satellite to a particular piece of debris. The harpoon technology that could capture satellites using a spear attached to a string will also be tested.
“While it might sound 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,” Aglietti said in a statement published by the University of Surrey.
The technology offers a potential solution to the growing problem of space junk. Space debris is a serious problem in space. A fleck of paint traveling at 34,500 kilometers per hour can potentially damage a window on the International Space Station, endangering the lives of astronauts stationed in low-Earth orbit.