Every time you look up into the night sky, what do you see? If your answer is ‘stars’ and ‘satellites’, well, you are only partially correct. You see, the thing is, not every shimmering specks in the blackened sky are stars; some of them could be space junk or debris reflecting lights. It is true and it could be more when humans are going to space more often, or sending more stuff up into the still, vacuum space beyond Earth’s atmosphere. You may ask ‘who will trash hundreds of miles from us affect us?’ Well, it won’t… if we never want to step out of this little blue marble.
Obviously, mankind would want to explore beyond our atmosphere, but with so many debris floating around, we are essentially creating a man-made asteroid belt and asteroid belt is not exactly a good thing for spacecraft, does it? Having said that, it will also make migrating to the Red Planet a lot more daunting, if not dangerous. So, yeah, space junk IS a growing problem. It is enough to be a significant problem that prompted designer like Vaughan Ling to dream up of a futuristic space debris collector. Ling’s concept, however (and unfortunately), is mostly science fiction for now.
In real life, in 2018, Airbus has taken upon itself to clean up this out-of-this-world problem and aerospace company’s solution? A harpoon. A giant-ass harpoon, to be precise. The harpoon will be fired from a spacecraft at rouge garbage that are happily floating in space. When enough has been skewed by this low-tech metal projectile, it will be towed towards Earth where they would then be incinerated as they are passing through the atmosphere. Sounds like a plan, though not as high-tech as I would have anticipated, but if it works and we need not to pay for it, we are all good. Sorry for being this selfish, but thank you for the satellites that gives us GPS.
At this point, the harpoon for eliminating space trash is merely paper talk. Back on Earth, the harpoon is being rigorously tested at Airbus’ lab in the UK and it has proven to be capable of piercing aluminum composite honeycomb sheet measuring 3 cm (1.18 inches) thick. This space-bound harpoon features a set of barbs that will deploy after penetration has occur, therefore preventing it from backing up without its objective. It works much like how arrow head prevents easy extraction with the triangular head, except that these are retractable barbs.
So, why not a space shuttle that gobbles up trash in space instead? I don’t know. Perhaps, it has cost and/or tech limitations? Or what about robotic arms? Well, for the latter, Airbus engineer Alastair Wayman said the maneuvering of the robotic arm may not make clearing as quick and simple as a harpoon. For now, engineers and scientists are working hard to make sure the final design will be able to pierce the current behemoth of space junk, the remainder of the Envisat Earth observation satellite, which is an eight-ton metal debris that has been wondering aimless around Earth for a six years.
In the meantime, a smaller version of the harpoon will be heading to space on a mission by RemoveDebris who will be introducing its own space debris and try reining it in using both a net and harpoon. So, yeah, no futuristic zero-gravity garbage spacecraft.
Here’s a video about space junks, courtesy of The Royal Society:
via Popular Mechanics.