Capture debris from harpoons in space for the first time


A harpoon designed for capture orbital junk has been successfully tested in space for the first time as part of the active debris removal demonstration mission SupprimerDebris.

The titanium harpoon, the size of a pen, developed by Airbus engineers in the UK, was fired on February 8 on an aluminum target, which was expanding from spacecraft connected to a carbon fiber dam. During the test, he managed to pull the target out of its orbit and back into the main spacecraft.

"This test has been a real success and gives us a very good confidence in the harpoon technology developed," said Alastair Wayman, senior project engineer at Airbus, responsible for the design of the experiment. "We have tested a lot on the field, but obviously there are things we can not completely simulate on the pitch."[[[[Photos: Space debris images and cleaning concepts]

The ground control team, based at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (who built the spaceship) in Guildford, UK, had to wait three days to download all the data to make sure that the experiment, which was captured in slow motion video was unrolled as expected. "The ground control team had to download a series of commands for the spear and the spaceship, which the spacecraft then performed autonomously when it was at right angles to the sun so that we can get a good video of the experience, "Wayman said. I said.

The design of the harpoon was tested on the ground before the launch of the technology.

(Image: © Airbus / the RemoveDebris consortium)

Once the engineers were able to examine all these data, they confirmed that the harpoon had reached the target at a speed of 20 meters per second. Once the harpoon tip penetrated the panel, a spring mechanism deployed a series of barbs to secure the harpoon firmly in place. The carbon fiber dam to which the target was attached has not withstood the force of the impact and has broken down. Wayman said the engineers expected this to happen and they secured the harpoon with a clip to make sure the experiment did not create space debris.

The vacuum environment and the thermal conditions in orbit could also have an impact on the equipment, Wayman said. "The lanyard may have ended up being stiffer than expected because of the temperature, and the interaction between the projectile and the target may have behaved differently than we had anticipated," Wayman said. "But in reality, the behavior in the orbit and ground test was very similar, we got the same precision as we thought, we had the same firing speed and we managed to capture the target and the to do in the space did not have any impact on the operation. "

The RemoveDebris satellite harpoon is designed to grind and uproot pieces of space debris in orbit.

(Image: © Airbus / the RemoveDebris consortium)

Wayman said the Airbus team would pursue the development of the technology, which had originally been envisioned for the active debris removal mission of the European Space Agency e.Deorbit. This mission is expected to begin in the mid-2020s and remove a dead Earth observation satellite, Envisat, which is one of the largest and therefore most dangerous space debris, encumbering a low Earth orbit. However, the agency has finally decided to redefine the mission as a multipurpose vehicle and use a robotic arm instead.

This month's harpoon test was the penultimate experience of the $ 18.7 million RemoveDebris mission (15.2 million euros). The spacecraft, the first in history to demonstrate the active technology of removing space debris in orbit, has been released in space from the International Space Station in June 2018. The test campaign began in September with another experiment conducted by Airbus, which showed how to capture a small cube using a net. Shortly after, RemoveDebris tested the optical navigation technology that could be used to locate and target debris in orbit.[[[[Latest news on space debris and orbital debris]

"The harpoon was the most demanding experience of RemoveDebris and the success of this operation is a testament to all the participants," said Guglielmo Aglietti, senior mission investigator and director of the Surrey Space Center, at the 39, University of Surrey. said in a statement. "The RemoveDebris project provides tangible evidence of what can be achieved with the power of collaboration: to bring together the experience gained in industry and research to achieve something something really remarkable. "

The mission will complete in the coming weeks with the deployment of a sail cruiser that will accelerate the desorbit of the RemoveDebris probe. Ground control crews will try to keep in touch with the spaceship the size of a refrigerator for as long as possible in order to gather data on the performance of the sailing dredge.

Active space debris removal technologies are becoming critical as the environment around the Earth becomes more and more congested. According to experts, it will be necessary to remove each year five large objects from the low Earth orbit to avoid a dangerous crash waterfall announced by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in the 1970s and known today as under the name of Kessler syndrome.

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