Space junk is slowly becoming a global problem and space agencies and private companies are striving to find a viable solution. European company Airbus is also in the race to find such a solution and it has a gigantic space harpoon on its mind.
According to NASA, there are currently about 20,000 pieces of debris, sized 10 centimeters or larger, being tracked. The debris pieces, which are floating in the space at high speeds, could pose a major threat to important satellites in space as well as manned spacecraft such as the International Space Station.
Airbus’ space harpoon will likely pull rogue or redundant satellites out of the sky at its space research center in Stevenage. The harpoon, which will approximately be 3 feet long, will be attached to a larger spacecraft via a sturdy tether. The spacecraft would first target a piece of space junk, capture it and then fire the harpoon toward the junk to burn it to destruction.
The Airbus harpoon’s top target is Europe’s defunct Envisat Earth observation platform which weighs around eight tons. Envisat was launched by the European Space Agency in 2002. It suddenly lost contact with the satellite in 2012 while in orbit. Touted as the world’s largest civilian Earth observation satellite, Envisat can cause massive damage if it smashes into another satellite.
“Envisat is the outlier,” said advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman. He went ahead to explain that if they are successful in designing a harpoon that can destroy Envisat, then the same harpoon could be used to target all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit.
The initial testing was conducted at the aerospace company’s facility in Stevenage, UK. Peter Steele, a graduate space systems engineer who was part of the Airbus Defence and Space team that tested the harpoon, told MailOnline that the launch was a perfect success. He added that the harpoon penetrated the target panel, did not rebound out, flew straight and true with no wobbling.
The second test is expected to take place before the end of 2018 at the National lift test tower in Northampton.