A satellite designed to test various technologies that may help tackle the growing problem of space junk is undergoing final pre-flight testing.
The world is surrounded by garbage -- much of it old bits of rocket or disused satellites -- or the debris caused caused by junk colliding It's a problem we ignore at our peril - according to a team at the Surrey Space Centre.
They're preparing for the launch of RemoveDEBRIS a test-bed of low cost methods of picking up litter in space - including simple techniques like grabbing it with a harpoon or a fishing net.
"Since the dawn of the space age we've been launching things into space and a lot of it hasn't come back down so it's accumulating in space,” said Dr Jason Forshaw of Surrey Space Centre.
“The aim of our mission 'RemoveDEBRIS' is to actually go up there and test something called active debris removal. It's the concept of testing technologies such as a net or a harpoon to try and capture some of this space junk and bring it back down to earth," he said.
RemoveDEBRIS will deploy its own artificial space junk -- a so-called cubesat -- and then try to recover it in a net. A target will also test its ability to harpoon pieces of junk and reel them in.
"What we're aiming to do is eject cubesats and use this net or this harpoon to actually demonstrate that you can capture something in space. Once you capture it in future of course you'd be able to drag it back down to earth so it burns up," Dr Forshaw also said.
All space junk will eventually return to earth - but it can take centuries for gravity to do its work. A dragsail fitted to all new satellites could speed up that process.
The project will also test a low-cost radar system -- essential to navigate towards orbiting space garbage. Solutions that could help keep satellites safe -- and the services they provide.
"I think people dont realise how much people use satellites, for your mobile phones, your internet, all your communications, your GPS, financial transactions, weather monitoring, earth observation, disaster monitoring,” the scientist said.
“Virtually everything you can think of uses a satellite in some form these days and these are services that are at risk in the future if we don’t take this issue of space sustainability seriously," he added.
RemoveDEBRIS is due for launch in January next year.