UK Space Sector: Clearing the Path for the Future

Just a week ago, 400 kilometres above the Earth, the world’s first ever space harpoon was fired into orbit. The space harpoon is working towards ridding space of one of the biggest obstacles to space exploration, junk and debris.

The RemoveDebris spacecraft, is a collaboration between Surrey University, Surrey Satellite Technology and Airbus, working together to clear the orbit of the some 8,000 tonnes of artificial debris which has accumulated over 60 years of space activity. Space junk varies from broken-up spacecraft, to old rocket engines, and travels at about eight kilometres per second which can be hazardous to space stations and operational satellites which deliver important services such as telecommunications and weather observations, and not forgetting getting in the way of future space exploration and commercial space activity.

The £13m RemoveDebris spacecraft was released from the International Space Station in June 2018 and is showcasing ways of tackling the growing litter problem in orbit. It weighs 100kg and will test four separate technologies to capture rubbish out of this world: a capture net, vision-based navigation, a deorbiting drag sail and a harpoon which was tested just last week.

The harpoon system was designed by Airbus’ Stevenage site, which is also responsible for 25 per cent of all current satellites in orbit. The harpoon, which is fired at a speed of 20 metres per second will penetrate debris and uses barbs to prevent the debris from floating away. The test harpoon was fired into a target board which is hit with such force it breaks the target structure, but using the barbs it manages to hold onto the target, making the experiment a success.

Generating £14.2bn for the economy and with 71 per cent growth since 2012, the UK Space Sector is a British success story, highlighting innovative, high-tech equipment which is at the cutting edge of exploring the universe and putting the UK at the forefront of an expanding sector. Being one of the world’s largest suppliers of global nano and small satellites currently in orbit, RemoveDebris is just the start of a new-era of creative solutions which continue to look to the future.