First Space Debris Removal Demonstration a Success

RemoveDEBRIS first demonstration. Credit: University of Surrey.

The European Union co-funded RemoveDEBRIS satellite demonstration mission led by a team at the Surrey Space Centre demonstrated their first capture of simulated debris this week.

It was this past June that the RemoveDEBRIS satellite, a space debris technology demonstration, was deployed from the NanoRacks Kaber deployer on the  International Space Station by astronaut Ricky Arnold.

And now, ahead of schedule, the RemoveDEBRIS consortium, operated from the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey successfully demonstration the first active debris removal (ADR) technology.

According to the University of Surrey “the US Space Surveillance Network tracks 40,000 objects and it is estimated that there are more than 7,600 tonnes of ‘space junk’ in and around Earth’s orbit – with some moving faster than a speeding bullet, approaching speeds of 30,000 miles per hour.”

On Sunday 16 September, the RemoveDEBRIS satellite used a net to capture a simulated piece of space debris the satellite had deployed. It’s only a small test, the first in a series. But it does mark a milestone in the effort of dealing with this serious problem.

The amount of debris on-orbit poses a serious threat to not only astronauts in space, but also every active satellite in orbit. At some point much of the debris that is in orbit will have to be removed. It will be a costly and time consuming activity that no one at this point appears willing to pay for, event the nations who created the debris in the first place. National and international agencies are aware of the problem and have been trying for some time to come up with solutions.

Ingo Retat, Airbus RemoveDEBRIS project head said on the success of the first demonstration; “To develop this net technology to capture space debris we spent 6 years testing in parabolic flights, in special drop towers and also thermal vacuum chambers. Our small team of engineers and technicians have done an amazing job moving us one step closer to clearing up low Earth orbit.”

Next up for the RemoveDEBRIS satellite is to test other ADR technologies. This includes a vision-based navigation system that uses cameras and LiDaR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to analyze and observe potential pieces of debris, a harpoon capture technology used in orbit and a drag-sail that will force the RemoveDEBRIS satellite into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn and thus make sure it too doesn’t become a piece of space debris.

RemoveDEBRIS consortium members include;

  • Mission and consortium coordination – Surrey Space Centre (UK)
  • Satellite system engineering – ArianeGroup (France)
  • Platform, avionics and spacecraft operations – SSTL (UK)
  • Harpoon – Airbus (UK)
  • Net – Airbus (Germany)
  • Vision based navigation – CSEM (Switzerland)/ INRIA/ Airbus (France)
  • CubeSat dispensers – Innovative Solutions in Space (Netherlands)
  • Target CubeSats – Surrey Space Centre (UK)/ Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
  • Dragsail – Surrey Space Centre (UK)

Canada’s role in space debris mitigation

Canada has been active in both the policy side and technology development area. On the policy side Canada has been a leader on the  Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.

On the technology side, the Space Flight Laboratory has already demonstrated drag sail technology for small satellites. Neptec sells and develops advanced LiDars. Meanwhile, MDA is now marketing orbital servicing kits.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 18 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 25 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.