Space Junk: New Tech Headed to the ISS Will Track Debris and Capture It

It’s no secret that humans are a gross species. Aside from the irreparable damage we’ve done to our planet, we’ve also managed to get 6,800 tons of debris floating in low Earth orbit. Researchers refer to these old rocket parts and defunct spacecraft as space junk, and when it’s not plummeting back to Earth, it poses a threat to operational space technology.

A United Kingdom-led experiment is tackling our space junk issue in the hopes of keeping Earth from looking like it did in Wall-E. The RemoveDebris system is one of the multiple experiments being sent to the International Space Station on Monday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

The orbiting device will demonstrate three methods that could potentially be used to capture and track space junk. These include a huge fishing net, a space harpoon, and a vision-based detector that uses self-driving car tech.

Simulation of RemoveDebris hitting its bullseye with its harpoon.

But before it begins cleaning up low Earth orbit, RemoveDebris has to do a little polluting. The box-shaped craft will eject two small pieces of its own space junk that it will try to recover using the net and Light Detection and Ranging sensors. Oh and it will also deploy a bullseye for a little target practice with its harpoon.

RemoveDebris won’t be set into action until late May when it will be released into orbit by the ISS’s giant robotic arm. Once scientists have determined which technique is most effective, the 220-pound (100-kilogram) mechanism will deploy a sail to pull itself back down to Earth, where it will completely disintegrate.

If all goes well, there might be a fleet of these crafts soaring above us acting like the cleanup crew for humans’ messy space habits.

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