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World's first ever space harpoon to remove junk orbiting the Earth

If Captain Ahab could have lived to see this.

Exactly a week ago, 400 kilometres above the Earth, saw the firing of the world's first ever space harpoon.

This was just target practice. But it was a success. Proving that this kind of technology could be used to start ridding space of one of the biggest obstacles to further exploration or commercialisation: junk.

The spacecraft, RemoveDEBRIS, is a collaboration between Surrey University, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and Airbus Defence and Space dedicated to texting technologies that could start clearing the rubbish that is increasingly choking up the orbital neighbourhood of Earth.

Left over satellites, things dropped by astronauts, old rocket engines, and increasingly fragments of collision between those things, pose a genuine danger to robotic, and manned space ventures.

Space junk travels at about seven kilometres per second. So even a dropped screw or a fleck of paint can do serious damage to space hardware. The international space station is regularly damaged by minor impacts. But often has to move its orbit to avoid colliding with large pieces of debris that would destroy it.

NASA claims to track 500,000 pieces of junk. There’s a total of 6,800 tonnes of rubbish up there.

The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, administratively located at the Johnson Space Center, is recognised world-wide for its initiative in addressing orbital debris issues. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office has taken the international lead in conducting measurements of the environment.

Enter projects like RemoveDEBRIS. It has so far demonstrated that a net can be used to entangle a rogue satellite, seen whether it can accurately track a tumbling piece of space junk and intercept it, and now, tested another method of capture. The harpoon.

The ultimate aim of the project is to arm a large satellite with these tools to go after space debris like an orbital bin lorry. Collecting junk with nets and harpoons. It would then deploy a huge “solar sail” to slow itself down, leading itself and its haul of garbage to burn up as it renters the atmosphere.