“Space Harpooner” may be an honest-to-god job description in the future. A British firm is looking to develop technology that will make it possible to “harpoon” space debris orbiting the Earth. The idea would be to harpoon the debris, drag it back to Earth, and let it burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Astrium UK is a space and technology company that boasts being the third largest company to specialize in space engineering and science. They want to build a machine that would launch into outer space and collect unused man-made objects such as “out-of-service satellites, used rocket sections, or simply tiny scraps caused by collisions.” Their work could help clean up our orbital space, which is cluttered with such debris.
The project would consist of launching a satellite into space (potentially creating more space junk) that would be controlled by engineers on Earth. They would target space junk by shooting out a 30cm spear attached to a polymer cord, piercing the space refuse. The plan after that would be either to drag the broken satellite or to detach the spear and have boosters thrust the object towards the Earth’s atmosphere so it can burn up and disintegrate.
The Astrium UK’s space spear will target larger pieces of space junk so it would lessen the odds of collision and more space fragmentation. Researchers are currently testing prototypes of the space harpoon for its aim accuracy and the amount of force it will take to pierce a floating fuel fuselage. If the force is too great, then the harpoon may puncture the tank and allow it to leak, which may cause an explosion thus creating more space junk.
NASA is also developing a space harpoon, but not for cleaning up the space around the Earth. NASA plans to use their harpoon to take samples from comets.