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MIT Technology Review

Satellite uses giant net to trap spinning bit of space junk

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The RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft captured a probe in a demonstration of space debris cleanup.

The space landfill: Earth’s orbit is full of space junk. Right now there are about 8,000 man-made objects floating around our planet being tracked by the US Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network. And that’s a problem, because the more things we send up there, the greater the chances they crash into each other. That creates many more, smaller bits of junk, which would pose serious danger to future space missions (see the movie Gravity). 

The news: On Sunday, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite first spat out a tiny satellite called a CubeSat to use as target practice. Seconds later, it fired a net to try to capture it. As you can see in the video above, the net succeeded in wrapping up and securing the item. If the system were used for real, the junk would then be towed down into Earth’s atmopsphere to burn up, but in this case it will be allowed to fall to Earth.“While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering, and coordination,” says Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, UK.

A space laser: A net is far from the craziest idea for clearing up lower Earth orbit. Lasers and junk-eating rocket engines have also been considered in the past.

What’s next? The researchers will be using the RemoveDEBRIS satellite to test a new navigation system and another way of trapping space trash: a harpoon that can directly spear objects.