Science

Experimental net captures orbiting space junk

A net has managed to capture space junk, in a demonstration of ways to clean up debris in orbit.

British-led effort is first of its kind to clean up hazardous debris

In this September 2018 image made from video provided by the University of Surrey, a net is launched from a satellite to catch a test object. The experiment was conducted to research ways to clean up debris in orbit around Earth. (University of Surrey via Associated Press)

A tossed net has managed to capture space junk in a demonstration of ways to clean up debris in orbit.

In the British-led experiment, a big net was cast from a mini satellite Sunday. The net successfully wrapped around its target, an inflated structure that had just been deployed as part of the test. The distance covered nearly six metres.

Black-and-white video showed the catch.

"This is not sci-fi. We repeat, not sci-fi," tweeted the Texas-based company NanoRacks, which developed the space station's microsatellite deployer.

The University of Surrey's Guglielmo Aglietti said Thursday the target was spinning faster than expected, but that made the test even more realistic. The objective is to show ways of removing debris from orbit, which is cluttered with old rocket and spacecraft parts. This debris poses a hazard not only to the International Space Station and its crew, but to the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites.

The European Space Agency estimates that there are roughly 166 million man-made objects in space, ranging in size from one millimetre to the size of a refrigerator. Some move faster than a speeding bullet.

The net — about five metres across — and its target will eventually fall out of orbit together and burn up.

A harpoon, meanwhile, will be tested in a similar manner in February, according to Aglietti.

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