Space harpoon plan to nail orbital garbage

By | April 20, 2013

Space harpoon plan to nail orbital garbage

What do you do with 6,000 tons of space junk traveling at thousands of miles an hour? Harpoon it of course. It might sound like a scenario straight off the pages of a science fiction novel but it is a suggested solution to an increasing and potentially costly problem in space — that of debris littering low earth orbit. The harpoon plan is one of a range of options being discussed by scientists at a forum in Germany next week, and aimed at finding a way of tackling space debris that threatens commercial operations. Engineer Jaime Reed, who is leading the harpoon project for the space technology company Astrium, explains that if a rogue satellite hits another, not only does it ruin the mission but it creates more debris and propagates the problem. This run-away scenario is often called the Kessler Syndrome, named after NASA’s Don Kessler who first highlighted the risk.

“There’s a lot of space debris — 6,000 tons in orbit — that could pose a threat,” said Reed.

“Perhaps unwittingly, the average person relies a lot on space — GPS in their phones, telecoms, TV, weather forecasts — they are things people expect to have,” he said.

“Space debris could very easily take out some of those satellites — it would have a real impact on people’s lives.”

Astrium’s plan to tackle defunct satellites is to use an unmanned chase spacecraft to get in range, fire a barbed harpoon into the body of the rogue hardware and then use a smaller propulsion unit attached to a tether to tow it back towards the atmosphere where it will burn up safely on re-entry.

“Because the harpoon we are using is very light and the chase satellite more than a ton, momentum is very tiny… it’s a small recoil,” said Reed. …

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Video animation here. Great idea. It is extra interesting due to the possibility that a harpoon system could be used on working enemy satellites, not just junk, thus making it a space based weapon. Do most satellites have thrusters for repositioning that would be able to fight off a harpooning that tried to drag them down to Earth?

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