15 February 2019
Harpoon successfully captures space debris
The RemoveDEBRIS satellite, one of the world’s first attempts to address the build-up of dangerous space debris, has successfully used its on-board harpoon-capture system in orbit....
The proliferation of space debris represents a time-bomb, as we are seeing with the return to Earth of the remains of the Tiangong-1 “Celestial Palace” spacecraft. The European project RemoveDEBRIS is designed to test – in real situations – techniques for eliminating this debris. The “hunter” satellite developed for this purpose was successfully launched on April 2 from the base at Cape Canaveral (USA). CSEM is lending its “eyes” to this mission, which is a European “first”.
The return to Earth of the debris of a Chinese space station highlights a much bigger problem – how to manage “space junk”. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris are floating around in orbit. This presents a danger to working satellites, and actually forced the International Space Station (ISS) to take evasive action. In 2015, its crew had to take refuge in a Soyuz spacecraft because of a close encounter with the remains of a Russian satellite.
Several research projects are being undertaken to perfect technologies that are capable of eliminating space debris. Among these is RemoveDEBRIS. This European project, launched as part of the FP7 program, comprises ten partners, including CSEM. On April 2, it entered the operational phase with the launch by SpaceX of a “hunter” satellite from Cape Canaveral (USA). This space vehicle was taken on board the ISS, from which it will be deployed, over several months, to test various technologies associated with the elimination of this debris. The mission represents a European “first”.
“We believe the technologies we will be demonstrating could provide feasible answers to the space junk problem - answers that could be used on future space missions in the very near future,” explains Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, Director of the Surrey Space Centre (UK), which is coordinating the project. Sample debris will be captured in a net or eliminated using a harpoon. To visualize this debris, the vision system is critically important. This consists mainly of a LIDAR capable of obtaining 3D images and a color camera, which were developed by CSEM in partnership with Airbus and INRIA. “Thanks to this project, we have acquired cutting-edge competencies in a technology with high potential,” enthuses Alexandre Pollini, Project Manager at CSEM. Already used in driverless vehicles on Earth or in space, this type of LIDAR also offers interesting perspectives for the precision landing of space exploration probes or for automatic orbital docking.
More information on CSEM space projects: CSEM in Space