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UK Engineers Develop Harpoon System for Old Satellites

By - Source: BBC | B 14 comments
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Could harpoons be the answer to our space junk problem?

Space exploration is extremely important. However, it also means that there is some stuff in space that shouldn't really be there. This is a growing problem, and while we're a long way from a space landfill, space junk does put currently operational satellites and the like at risk. It isn't the kind of problem we can or should ignore, and one British engineer reckons the best solution to the problem is to take the junk out with a space harpoon.

The BBC reports that Dr. Jaime Reed, from Astrium UK has designed a barbed harpoon that measures 30cm in length and would be mounted on a chaser satellite. This satellite would take the harpoon to the junk, stopping about 100m away from the offending object. At that point, a camera on the ground would be used to position the harpoon for the perfect shot, and the satellite would move to just 20m away. The harpoon would then hook onto the space junk and it would be pulled (either via the satellite or a separate thruster) towards Earth, burning up on its way down.

The idea isn't perfect. For example, the BBC cites Dr. Reed as saying exploding fuel tanks in old rockets are a concern. However, the harpoon is still in the conceptual stages and there are other solutions on the table as well. 

Further Reading

BBC: UK design to 'harpoon' old satellites

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  • 5 Hide
    gtvr , October 9, 2012 12:05 PM
    Wouldn't the harpoon create more space debris?
  • 0 Hide
    Dangi , October 9, 2012 12:07 PM
    And the satellite must have Pequod for it's name
  • 1 Hide
    thecolorblue , October 9, 2012 12:07 PM
    conservation of momentum and launching space projectiles are not a good combo for a small satellite.

    launching a harpoon at a hard object also seems a little off.... shards of metal floating free from each impact? using ground-based cameras to align the harpoon???


    not giving this a high probability of success
  • 1 Hide
    Pennanen , October 9, 2012 12:21 PM
    Just launch giant magnets into the orbit. They push things away into space or into atmosphere.

    Magnets are wonders.
  • 0 Hide
    alyoshka , October 9, 2012 12:27 PM
    I don't really get it... isn't it just going to be pushed away by the harpoons inertia? Since there is no force resisting the onslaught....
    But then I'm me.
  • 0 Hide
    belardo , October 9, 2012 12:42 PM
    What is needed is some sort of gravity device.
  • 1 Hide
    Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer , October 9, 2012 1:09 PM
    PennanenJust launch giant magnets into the orbit. They push things away into space or into atmosphere. Magnets are wonders.

    F--king magnets...how do they work?
  • 0 Hide
    digiex , October 9, 2012 1:58 PM
    Fuel to satellite catch ratio?
  • 0 Hide
    TeraMedia , October 9, 2012 2:26 PM
    Launching a satellite to catch a satellite isn't good enough. They need to launch one to catch 100. Problem is, catching 100 of anything that travels at 7000+ mph in different directions takes a lot of energy. And impacts with anything hard can cause more space debris. They need to use something "soft" to change the velocity and/or direction. Magnets don't interact strongly enough at a distance, or they'd help (provided the forces didn't bring down the garbage collector as well).

    Something like a gas cloud might work. Create a cloud of gas in the path of the satellite by releasing something like liquid N2. It's soft enough that it might not create more space debris, and if it's dense enough it could perhaps slow the garbage satellite down enough to cause reentry. One large "cleaner" satellite could store several tanks of liquid N2, allowing it to clean up more than one garbage satellite.

    One nice aspect of such an approach is that the decelerating gas quickly dissipates, leaving behind no additional space debris to impact other satellites on similar orbits. I just don't know if it's possible to create a cloud large enough to have the desired effect; especially with larger satellites, it might just change the orbit a bit instead.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , October 9, 2012 2:57 PM
    Why not just launch nukes at the old satellites? do it on the 4th of July each year, would make for great fireworks and the satellites would be bombarded at incredible velocities towards our mortal enemies the Martians.
  • 0 Hide
    MrKKBB , October 9, 2012 3:25 PM
    Great, this is a perfect way to go after enemy satellites during a time of conflict.
  • 1 Hide
    drapacioli , October 9, 2012 4:29 PM
    thecolorblueconservation of momentum and launching space projectiles are not a good combo for a small satellite.launching a harpoon at a hard object also seems a little off.... shards of metal floating free from each impact? using ground-based cameras to align the harpoon??? not giving this a high probability of success


    Auxiliary rockets would do the trick. How else doe anything attach to anything in space? The space shuttle docked using rockets to position itself, a satellite can use rockets to negate the inertia from the harpoon launch. As for the idea as a whole, I'd like to see a much more efficient system than a 1:1 ratio for retrieving space junk...
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , October 9, 2012 4:31 PM
    A nuke detonated in space over earth would be on the level of a massive solar flare bypassing the earths natural magnetic defenses against these, raining a massive electromagnetic pulse down on the surface below, blowing out power grids. Would look like the aurora of high in north or south hemispheres, pretty, but dangerous. It's been done before, lookup 'starfish prime'.
  • 0 Hide
    f-14 , October 10, 2012 4:51 AM
    stupidest idea i ever heard, why not just blow up the satellites while he is at it, ever harpooned a machine with lots of parts, that's just going to make an even bigger debris field that will wipe out whole solar panels and damage communications satellites.

    seriously are all scientists on crack cocaine and using hemp for incense these days?