SpaceX has launched a small satellite provided by the Surrey Space Center known as RemoveDEBRIS that will be deployed through an airlock in the Japanese Kibo module and released into space by the laboratory’s Japanese robot arm.
The idea is to test technologies that could one day be used to snag and de-orbit space junk.
In one test, a small cubesat will be released from the RemoveDebris satellite, which then will try to target and snare it with a net that could then be used to pull it out of orbit.
“The idea is that the net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to, for example, going with a robotic arm,” said Guglielmo Aglietti, RemoveDEBRIS principal investigator, and director of the Surrey Space Center.
In another test, a harpoon-like spear will be fired at a plate to test another technique that could be used to capture a wayward piece of debris.
“The harpoon is maybe simpler, just shooting a harpoon,” Aglietti told Spaceflight Now. “But then one might think that maybe it’s a bit more risky because you have to hit your debris in a place that is suitable to be captured by the harpoon. Clearly, you have to avoid any fuel tanks.”
Finally, the RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will deploy a so-called “drag brake,” an inflatable structure that will increase atmospheric drag and help ensure a speedy descent. Similar brakes could be installed on future spacecraft to help them drop out of orbit at the end of their lives.
“It’s a proof-of-concept, so we want to learn as much as possible,” Aglietti said. “Even if some experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned, provided we get all the data, it’s still a positive outcome. Once the whole campaign is finished, and the satellite is de-orbited, it would be great if companies offered this as a service.””
As the station crew unloads the Dragon’s pressurized compartment they will re-pack it with trash, no-longer-needed equipment and science samples, stored in freezers and cold bags, that will be returned to scientists on the ground.
NASA says there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.