European engineers based at the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in partnership with few other companies have developed a small satellite that was launched today at 2030 GMT and 9.30 p.m. EDT onboard Cargo Resupply Ship (CRS-14) on SpaceX’s Dragon rocket. This was a first-of-a-kind satellite equipped with a harpoon and nets to capture potentially dangerous space debris that has been floating in the space over decades. The satellite ‘RemoveDEBRIS’ has been made in private and public partnership with Airbus, ISIS, and other companies that will be deployed from the International Space Station (ISS).
On April 2, SpaceX launched its CRS-14 to ISS carrying tons of cargo including RemoveDEBRIS that was blasted off exactly at 2030 GMT or 9.30pm UK time from Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. If all goes as per the plan, Dragon capsule will reach the ISS on early Wednesday where the spacecraft will be unpacked along with other stuff that has been sent to conduct experiments in space. The astronauts will prepare the satellite for its mission after which, they will deploy it into space.
According to the statistics released by NASA, the speed of the space debris at any time could be around 17,500 mph. There are over 20,000 pieces of debris the size larger than a cricket ball and there are more than half a million pieces of debris with the size larger than marble. There are defunct spacecraft, probes, and even astronauts gloves floating in the space as debris will be disastrous to human crew or equipment mounted on spacecraft or even the ISS. For instance, a defunct Russian satellite collides with an Iridium communications satellite on February 10, 2009, where the latter was functioning properly. This collision led to the destruction of both the satellites as well as, it added 2,000-odd pieces of space debris which escalated the already surged space junk.
RemoveDEBRIS satellite is funded by European Commission and built by a consortium led by University of Survey, Airbus, ISIS, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and other firms as an experiment to curb the issue of space debris. In a video released by the University of Surrey, the satellite is equipped with a repurposed fishing net that will be thrown at the objects to capture it. Another CubeSat installed in the satellite is the harpoon which attaches with the debris and pulls it towards the satellite after which, it can take various measures to curb it.
A laser-guided visual navigation system creates a map of space debris thus, prompting the satellite to work accordingly. Then, it has a large drag sail designed to prevent the re-entry of the satellite into the Earth’s atmosphere at a high speed. The drag sail will slow down the velocity of the satellite ensuring that it completely burns upon entry. The satellites weigh around 220 pounds or 100 kgs in the cargo load along with total 2.6 metric tons of load that will be carried by the SpaceX Dragon rocket to the ISS.
Per the manifest, the crew aboard ISS will unpack the one-meter cube spacecraft from its container after which, it will be shifted to the Japanese Kibo lab module airlock where the NanoRacks carrier will take it to the outside of the deck. Now, Kibo’s robotic arm will grab the satellite and deploy it at the position which has been predetermined by the engineers. The expected deployment of the satellite will be between May and June this year. Once the spacecraft is at a safe distance from the space station and all the tests have returned positive responses, RemoveDEBRIS will start functioning. This is when the spacecraft will start capturing space junk and will do other tasks such as a dead satellite, however, it won’t displace or capture a functioning satellite as it is still untested in such circumstances.
The U.S. Department of Defense monitors the more critical space debris, including 20,000 objects as big as baseballs and 50,000 objects as big as marbles. The Space Debris Sensor, while, will focus on space junk that is only 50 microns to 1 millimetre in diameter, of which there are millions in space. The configuration of SDS enables the sensor to measure the size, speed, direction, time, and energy of any small debris it comes into contact with. While the acoustic sensors calculate the time and location of a penetrating result, the grid measures change in resistance to provide size estimates of the impactor. The sensors in the backstop also measure the hole created by an impactor, which is used to define the impactor’s velocity.
This information will enhance safety aboard the ISS by allowing scientists to monitor the risks of collisions and generate more accurate estimates of how small-scale debris exists in space. As noted, the more critical pieces of debris in orbit are constantly observed. These consists of the roughly 20,000 objects that are about the size of a baseball, and an extra 50,000 that are about the size of a marble.
One of the suggested solutions for cleaning up space debris is a new robotic gripper that uses adhesives inspired by geckos. By itself though, the technology will likely not be enough to eliminate all the junk floating around space right now.
In order show how much space pollution we humans have created, Stuart Grey, a scientist and lecturer at the University College London, has made a video which compares the amount of space debris present in 1957 with space chunks in 2015. It was 1957 when Russians launched the Sputnik satellite and released first of the man-made chunk in space. Since then there has been tremendous increase in the numbers and now these numbers have grown so much that they are threatening space projects and more importantly mankind itself.
Every white dot in the video represents a space debris released during space missions. Agencies have started proposing ideas to clear up space chunk before things quickly get out of hand.