With a more quickly growing number of nations and private ventures reaching orbit than ever before, one issue of significant concern for all parties involved is space junk. Orbital debris comes from a wide variety of sources. It could include discarded rocket components, bits of trash accidentally released by orbiting astronauts, or pieces of broken satellites. Earth’s litter problem in space is already far-reaching and extremely treacherous. It promises to only become worse if we don’t find a way to remove the most dangerous bits of space junk before they have a chance to cause damage to anyone’s operational spacecraft or satellites.

This computer-generated orbital debris graphic displays currently tracked debris objects. (NASA)

Given this impending problem, a number of efforts have been mounted to capture and destroy large bits of orbital debris simply by getting ahold of them and reorienting them into a degrading orbit. As the junk falls into the Earth’s atmosphere, the friction will incinerate the debris, leaving a clearer sky for all of mankind. This strategy does represent one significant problem for national security, though: The ways one would capture and destroy space junk would work on most satellites, too.

It doesn’t take much to render a nation’s defense satellites worthless for a short time. A simple nudge would do in most cases. If you wanted to destroy an entire platform, all you’d need to do is capture it with a retractable arm and force it into a descent. Don’t have a retractable arm on your space weapon? Well, as the team at RemoveDEBRIS out of the University of Surrey in England have demonstrated, a simple spear will do quite nicely as well.

(University of Surrey)

That’s a recent demonstration of the RemoveDEBRIS program’s space-based junk spear. Their satellite was sent up to test a number of debris-capturing methodologies, one of which included using a tethered projectile to capture floating bodies in space. Previous tests have included launching nets and using onboard LIDAR and optical camera equipment to locate, identify, and close with targets, which, in the University of Surrey’s case, have mostly been targets of their own construction. In the case of Russia’s “Inspector” satellites and China’s forthcoming platforms built on the same basic premise, though, the targets could feasibly be anything in orbit, including the satellites the U.S. military relies on for navigation, communications, and even nuclear launch warnings.

Eliminating the threat posed by space debris is undoubtedly an important undertaking, but as the skies above our heads become more crowded, it is growing increasingly difficult to distinguish between well-intentioned efforts and ostensibly harmless albeit easily weaponized initiatives by national competitors. In fact, we may not see such a space weapon coming until it’s too late—and then it may be the last thing our satellites ever see.

Watch the full test of RemoveDEBRIS’ system below:


Feature image courtesy of YouTube