UK engineers designing harpoon to pull out old satellite junk from space

      UK engineers are developing a system to harpoon rogue or redundant satellites and pull them out of the sky, it has emerged. It comes in response to the ever growing problem of orbital junk, that are old pieces of hardware that continue to circle the Earth and now pose a collision threat to operational spacecraft.

The harpoon would be fired at the hapless satellite from close range, after which a propulsion pack tethered to the projectile would then pull the junk downwards, to burn up in the atmosphere. "Space has become a critical part of our infrastructure - from weather forecasting and Earth observation, to GPS and telecommunications," the BBC quoted the harpoon's designer, Dr Jaime Reed, from Astrium UK, as saying.

"Space junk poses a real threat to these vital services if we do nothing about it, and so it's very important we develop capture technologies to remove some of this material. Studies have shown that taking out just a few large items each year can help us get on top of the problem," he added. According to the report, Reed's proposal is for a barbed spear about 30cm in length, which would be mounted on a "chaser satellite" that would edge to within 100m of a junk object. Pictures sent to the ground would then be used to assess the target, before the chaser was moved to within perhaps 20m to take a shot.

The company, the largest space manufacturer in Europe, is also pursuing other ideas at its centres in France and Germany , which involve nets and robotic grappling devices, the report said.

More than 50 years of space activity have left a huge quantity of redundant hardware in orbit, with an estimated number of 500,000 particles ranging in size between 1-10cm across, and perhaps tens of millions of other particles smaller than 1cm.

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