UK Engineers Develop Harpoon System for Old Satellites

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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  • gtvr
    Wouldn't the harpoon create more space debris?
  • Dangi
    And the satellite must have Pequod for it's name
  • thecolorblue
    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
  • Pennanen
    Just launch giant magnets into the orbit. They push things away into space or into atmosphere.

    Magnets are wonders.
  • alyoshka
    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.
  • belardo
    What is needed is some sort of gravity device.
  • Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer
    PennanenJust launch giant magnets into the orbit. They push things away into space or into atmosphere. Magnets are wonders.F--king do they work?
  • digiex
    Fuel to satellite catch ratio?
  • TeraMedia
    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.
  • 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.