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'Something Truly Remarkable': Scientists Use Harpoon To Skewer Space Junk

A European satellite could be the answer scientists are looking for to clean up tonnes of space-junk orbiting through space around Earth.

The aptly-named RemoveDEBRIS satellite has successfully completed phase three of its mission to find a solution for the dangerous space debris which has been building up in outer space.

A harpoon with a piece of space satellite attached to its end was shot out of a spacecraft earlier this month, spearing towards its target at the speed of 20 metres per second to penetrate the debris.

The impact shattered the boom holding the target at a distance of 15 metres away -- an affect that was expected, according to the team working on the project.

"Bits of space junk which are left over from previous launches can get in the way and can actually disturb spacecraft," Programme Manager for the RemoveDEBRIS project at Surrey Space Centre, Simon Fellowes, told Reuters.

"So if two items were to collide they could be doing speeds of up to 17,000 kilometres an hour," he added.

"In which case it would be catastrophic"

Scientists said this was the project's third successful experiment, after earlier showing the satellite was able to capture simulated debris using a net and later using a sophisticated navigation system to identify orbiting junk.

The successful harpoon experiment is hoped to bring scientists one step closer to solving a "growing issue" of space debris, according to Harpoon Lead Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, Chris Burgess.

The spear is shot out of the main spacecraft towards the debris. Image: Reuters

UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Chris Skidmore, said using the harpoon showed the answer to the debris problem could potentially be found in a tool humans have used throughout history.

"Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into our satellites," Skidmore said in a joint statement with the University of Surrey researchers.

Experts estimate more than seven tonnes of space junk is found in and around Earth's orbit, some of which can travel speeds approaching nearly 50,000 kilometres per hour.

Director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, Professor Guglielmo Aglietti said the successful experiment provided strong evidence of how the collaborative efforts could achieve "something remarkable".

The final stage of the RemoveDEBRIS experiment is set to take place in March, when teams will inflate a sail that will drag the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere where it will be destroyed.

With Reuters. 

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Featured Image: Reuters/Airbus

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au