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Sci-Tech

See a satellite spear space junk with a freakin' harpoon

It's exactly as awesome as it sounds.

The RemoveDebris satellite shortly after its June 2018 deployment from the ISS.

Ricky Arnold/NASA

Earth has an orbital-junk problem. Dead satellites, rocket pieces and miscellaneous debris have collected around the planet and we need to figure out ways to clean it up. So how about about we go all Moby Dick on that space trash and spear it?

The RemoveDebris satellite, which launched in mid-2018 from the ISS, is a test bed for technologies that may be able to help us clean up space trash. It already showed it could catch junk with a Spider-Man-style net. Now it has successfully demonstrated it can spear a target with a harpoon.

The University of Surrey in the UK posted details of the Feb. 8 test on Friday and shared a slow-motion video of the harpoon in action. 

RemoveDebris comes from Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK in partnership with a group that includes aerospace corporation Airbus. Airbus designed the harpoon system, which deployed a boom with a satellite panel on the end. The tethered harpoon shot out and speared the target. 

The more space junk gathers in orbit, the greater the chance sensitive satellite equipment or spacecraft could be damaged by impacts. It's a problem that will need to be reckoned with. This experiment could point to a way forward that involves janitor satellites heading out to sweep up the mess.

RemoveDebris has a final experiment set for March, and it involves the satellite's own demise. The satellite will attempt to inflate a sail that will drag it down into the Earth's atmosphere where it will burn up and not become a piece of space junk itself.