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Astronomy and Space Exploration Reporting

RemoveDebris tests a harpoon to capture space debris

For the first time, a harpoon was used in space to capture a panel simulating space debris. This successful demonstration was carried out by the RemoveDebris satellite which had managed to capture debris with a net during another experiment. This satellite, designed to orbit several scenarios and technologies capable of de-orbiting space debris, has completed these demonstrations. So that it does not become a debris too, it will use a drag sail to accelerate its return to Earth and its destruction in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The RemoveDebris satellite, designed to orbit several scenarios and technologies capable of de-orbiting space debris, has successfully completed its third demonstration of capture with a harpoon. A harpoon was launched at a speed of about 20 meters per second to a composite panel. To demonstrate its ability to capture debris, the harpoon penetrated this panel which was located 1.5 meters from the satellite at the end of a pole.

Harpooning is a technique suitable for capturing and de-orbiting very large debris, such as tanks and upper stages of launchers. The idea is to use a harpoon to rid the orbit (the road) of a satellite that would be likely to be hit by one of these objects, which are no longer under control and whose number is estimated at several thousand.

The RemoveDebris mission is not over yet. The satellite must perform aerobraking , using a drag sail, which will ensure its de-orbitation in about eight weeks. Without this sail, more than two and a half years would have been necessary for it to desorb. In this way, RemoveDebris will not become debris.

This fourth and final experience will consist of deploying a trailing sail at the desired moment. The surface / mass ratio of the satellite will be increased so that the altitude of the orbit will naturally be reduced by atmospheric drag. This reduction in orbit will also be accompanied by a reduction in the speed of the satellite which will eventually fall back into the Earth ‘s atmosphere where it will be consumed.

This technique is currently implemented with the Microscope satellite of Cnes, which tested the principle of equivalence, stated by the theory of general relativity. Located in a higher orbit than RemoveDebris – 707 kilometers against 400 – using its sail, Microscope will return to Earth in 26 years, against 74 years without sailing.

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