space harpoon

A newly designed space harpoon that looks like it could take down Moby Dick will actually be used to take on one of the biggest issues facing Earth.

Aerospace manufacturers Airbus say the company successfully tested the wrangling device on March 15 in a Stevenage, U.K. lab. The wrangling device, just over 3 feet long, will be used to clean up space junk in Low Earth Orbit. With some successful testing under its belt, Airbus says it’ll perform an even more realistic launch later this year. Space.com reports that in the test run, engineers will fire the harpoon “at a target 82 feet (25 m) away” in order to more accurately model how the harpoon could capture a real satellite or piece of debris.

space harpoon
Airbus's space harpoon

According to Airbus, the harpoon will be attached to a spacecraft that will then shoot it onto a piece of space junk. It’ll then drag the debris back into our atmosphere to burn up. NASA reports that “the estimated population of [debris] particles between .4 inches and 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) in diameter is approximately 500,000,” and that doesn’t even include the millions of particles smaller than .4 inches. Clearly, the space harpoon has its work cut out for it.

The Eurospean Space Agency (ESA) is considering the space harpoon as part of its Clean Space Initiative to remove a derelict satellite called Envisat from Low Earth Orbit. Defunct since 2010, Envisat is now a massive hunk of space junk and a growing threat to spacecraft around it. The ESA will reportedly test a smaller version of the harpoon next month.

Space junk is a potentially dangerous form of clutter. In the worst case scenario — called the Kessler Syndrome — space junk collides repeatedly in an out-of-control cascade that eventually knocks out all of Earth’s telecommunications grids. Have you seen Gravity? It’s that thing.

Sure, laugh at space harpoon all you want. But it just might save the world.

Photos via Airbus