Airbus goes full Ahab with satellite skewering harpoon

James Marshall
March 17, 2018

To facilitate removal of junk and rogue satellites from outer space, European aerospace giant Airbus is working on a very big "space harpoon" that is reported to be high-tech and efficient.

Harpoon project manager Alastair Wayman says that if the harpoon can handle Envisat, it can handle other types of derelict spacecraft including rocket upper stages that are still in orbit.

"After we successfully harpoon the target, we can use a tether attached to a chaser satellite to drag it back into Earth's atmosphere, where it can be safely destroyed". This latest Airbus harpoon is being developed with the aim of capturing one of the biggest items of the lot: the defunct Envisat Earth observation platform from Europe.

This 8-tonne behemoth died suddenly and stopped functioning in 2012.

Envisat is the outlier.

Image caption Like a knife through butter.

The test in Stevenage involved using compressed air to fire the harpoon into a panel representing part of a satellite's structure. These are generally thick, composite honeycomb panels made up of a lot of aluminum. When the tip of the harpoon pierces the skin, barbs open to stop it from slipping out. "We'd then de-tumble the satellite with a tether on the other end".

Harpoons are simple, yet very effective devices compared to robotic arms or nets. You line up the target and shoot.

"We're now looking at doing a bigger test where we will fire the harpoon vertically over 25 metres which will demonstrate the accuracy of the harpoon and the ability to withstand the forces required to deorbit the target". "And because it's a really quick event, it takes out a lot of the complexity".

The European Space Agency, which is responsible for Envisat, is considering all options at the moment, and the demonstration missions that fly in the next few years will nearly certainly go for easier, more cooperative targets first.

The metre-long metal harpoon was tested at Airbus Defence and Space, off Gunnels Wood Road.

Scientists have come up with a novel way to clear up space junk - the vast amount of debris orbiting the earth that varies in size from tiny washers to entire space stations.

How the space harpoon will breach the stray satellite. This will involve firing the projectile over a distance of 25m, the sort of separation over which the real flight model would have to work.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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