Nets and Harpoons: The Space Junk Cleanup Efforts

The presence of man-made debris in the Earth’s atmosphere is nothing new to us—but it’s becoming a problem. Learn about the recent space junk cleanup efforts.

Nets & Harpoons: The Space Junk Cleanup Efforts

Unfortunately, Earth’s pollution problems aren’t just within our planet’s atmosphere. As we continue to explore space and send out a growing number of expeditions, we leave a lot of clutter in our wake. This clutter—or debris—damages already orbiting spacecrafts and even prevents us from sending further advancements through the atmosphere. It’s for this reason that scientists around the globe are taking the necessary steps to remove this litter from the areas around our planet. As you might imagine, these space junk cleanup efforts require special technology to capture and dispose of the harmful contaminants. While scientists have developed prototypes for testing, they’re still looking for ways to collect and dispose of the trash in an efficient manner.

The Junk

Whether it’s a rocket ship or a satellite, launching anything into space generates a certain amount of debris. This junk can be anything from spent rocket stages to a once-useful piece of technology that’s no longer necessary. While some of this clutter will pass close enough to the Earth to burn up in our atmosphere, many of these metal chunks continue to orbit the planet and cause potential problems for ongoing studies and missions. For example, a recent scan of Europe’s International Space Station module has revealed several hundred impact craters from orbiting litter. Such damages can potentially end crucial studies and waste money and resources as a result. Furthermore, a punctured shuttle hull can even lead to avoidable casualties.

The Technology

As space junk becomes more prevalent, space agencies are under more pressure to clean up the debris that they leave behind.
In 2018, the University of Surrey used a satellite called RemoveDEBRIS to test possible removal methods. The craft threw a net out into orbit and captured a few pieces of debris before setting them on a new course toward the Earth. The satellite also tested the process of harpooning various objects for collection and using cameras to monitor nearby debris.

While the results of the RemoveDEBRIS tests have been positive, scientists are still looking for more efficient ways to dispose of space junk.

Other scientists are going about the problem from a reductive standpoint. Smaller objects don’t require as much force to change their orbital path, and—as a result—they don’t require multiple thrusters. These smaller objects will burn up quicker in the atmosphere, and it stands to reason that smaller satellites will leave less trash behind. That’s why Astroscale, an orbital sustainability company, only sends smaller satellites into space.

At Tohoku University in Japan, scientists are working on a solution that corrals a larger amount of trash than the RemoveDEBRIS tests. The idea is to use an ion-beam as a bigger net, and then push the captured debris toward the Earth so that it can then burn up in the atmosphere. The project has yet to yield a prototype, but our current technology does theoretically allow for it. Until then, collection—no matter how small—and prevention should be our top priorities.


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