See a satellite play Spider-Man and net space junk in orbit

The RemoveDebris satellite just proved it could snare space junk by shooting a net.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

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

Ricky Arnold/NASA

Space junk is the nebulous term given to defunct satellites, rocket bits and other assorted debris clogging up orbital paths around Earth. 

The RemoveDebris satellite research project just successfully tested out one method of dealing with flying junk: snag it with a net.

The satellite deployed its own space junk for the test, a small CubeSat mini-satellite. Footage of the test, which took place on Sept. 16, shows the net shooting into space and capturing the CubeSat in a very Spider-Man sort of way.

RemoveDebris comes from Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK in partnership with a group that includes aerospace corporation Airbus. Airbus engineers designed and built the net. 

The CubeSat and net will fall out of orbit on their own, but the technology could potentially be used on a larger scale to capture debris and maneuver it out of orbit so it can burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

The satellite is also equipped with some other experimental space junk technology, including a harpoon and a dragsail designed to help RemoveDebris quickly de-orbit at the end of its mission so it doesn't end up becoming space junk itself.

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold caught a view of RemoveDebris's deployment from the International Space Station back in June. He dropped the line "Resistance wasn't futile," referencing the satellite's resemblance to an alien Borg cube spaceship from Star Trek.

Space junk is a growing problem. The European Space Agency says space surveillance networks are tracking 21,000 debris objects as of January 2018. That's just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of debris pieces zipping around up there. 

The more crowded space gets, the more chances there are of collisions and damage to operational satellites and spacecraft. RemoveDebris' successful net experiment represents one small step toward cleaning up the space around Earth.

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