The world’s most advanced litter-picker will be launched into space next week to clean up floating debris which is threatening satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).
Surrey University has designed a spacecraft which can grab space junk then pull it into Earth’s atmosphere where it is burned up.
The little craft, named RemoveDebris, is due to launch from the Kennedy Space Centre on Monday, on board one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.
The spaceship will dock at the ISS first and then deploy on its own on a test mission to snare a small satellite using a harpoon and net.
It is estimated that there are more than 7,600 tonnes of space junk in and around Earth’s orbit – with some moving faster than a speeding bullet, approaching speeds of 30,000 miles per hour, which are a huge threat to satellites and space stations.
In 2016 a small piece of debris chipped a window on the International Space Station.
Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, said: “It is important to remember that a few significant collisions have already happened.
“Therefore, to maintain the safety of current and future space assets, the issue of the control and reduction of the space debris has to be addressed.
“We believe the technologies we will be demonstrating with RemoveDebris could provide feasible answers to the space junk problem – answers that could be used on future space missions in the very near future.”
The mission, which has been designed and manufactured by a consortium of leading space companies led by the University of Surrey and funded by the European Commission, is the first concrete attempt to clean up space junk currently orbiting Earth.
The tiny spaceship will perform two experiments to deploy and then capture a small ‘cubesat’ satellite, first using a net, and then using a harpoon.
The spacecraft will then deploy a large dragsail to allow it to fall out of orbit, where it will burn up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.
Since 1957, more than 5250 launches have led to tens of thousands of tracked objects in orbit around Earth.
But only about 1200 are working satellites – the rest are debris and no longer serve any useful purpose.
Many derelict craft have exploded or broken up, generating an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 cm and a staggering 166 million larger than 1 mm.
Science Minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “Space debris is a growing concern so it’s great to see a British university and our innovative space sector leading the way in the search for solutions.
“It is also a fantastic example of the unique expertise found in the UK’s growing space sector and the value that it adds to international projects.
“The UK Space Agency continues to work closely with industry to develop new technologies and infrastructure to grow our share of the global space market as part of our modern Industrial Strategy.”
The harpoon and net have been designed by Airbus UK.
Aurélien Pisseloup, Space Engineer at Airbus, said: “Airbus has been investing in new technologies for space debris removal in co-operation with space agencies and institutes.
“Contributing to this exciting mission with our expertise and concretely with our harpoon, net experiments and vision based navigation (VBN) moves the international space community one big step forward in tackling space debris.”
The Euroepan Space Agency is currently developing a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme to monitor the debris and has called on the world’s space agencies to try to keep Earth’s orbital environment as clean as possible.