Next year, British researchers at the Surrey Space Centre (Surry, England) will begin the world’s first mission to test out a space junk litter-picker, known as the “RemoveDebris” satellite. RemoveDebris will deploy small bits of artificial junk that it can catch with its harpoon and net. The center also plans to test the de-orbiting devices that will dispose of the debris.

Once the technology has been successfully tested, missions to capture existing space debris will start. Those missions will incorporate a series of four experiments – the last of which tests the satellite itself, which is made with carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) booms.

Specifically, after the first three experiments have been completed, the satellite will release an umbrella-like Mylar sail on the carbon fiber booms and an inflation device will spread the sail out. Once near the atmosphere, the sail will act like an airbrake in the same way as the balloon does in the net experiment. The satellite will slow down, lose altitude, and eventually burn upon re-entry.

The researchers are using carbon fiber due its strength, which is necessary due to the violent nature of the experiment.

“When the harpoon impacts [the satellite], it is actually going to simulate a real spacecraft being hit,” said Jason Forshaw, the project manager of RemoveDebris.

Forshaw said the idea for the project came from the need to prevent the danger that space debris poses to the world’s current and future spacecraft.

“Certain orbits – which are commonly used for imaging the earth, disaster monitoring and weather observation – are quickly filling up with junk, which could jeopardize the important satellites orbiting there,” said Forshaw. “A future big impact between junk in that orbit could result in a real life ‘gravity-like’ chain reaction of collisions. The international community needs to start working together now to remove space junk.”