The net is designed to snare debris, and then reel it back in © Surrey Nanosats SSC Mission Delivery Team/YouTube

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Net to catch space debris orbiting Earth is successfully deployed

This week scientists deployed the RemoveDEBRIS satellite that successfully fired out a net and trapped a piece of space debris that was in orbit around Earth.

Capturing extraordinary footage of this moment, the team have managed to demonstrate how clearing up the thousands of tonnes of space junk currently swirling around our planet might actually be possible.

While the latest demonstration worked, the project is still in its test phase. The box was actually ejected from the satellite itself, to simulate a piece of space debris tumbling around the planet. Eventually it is hoped that the net will be tethered to the satellite and drawn back in when junk is captured.

For this experiment both the net and debris were not retracted but nudged into Earth's orbit. They are expected to burn up in Earth's atmosphere within just a few months.   

Ingo Retat, project head of Airbus RemoveDEBRIS, says, 'Our small team of engineers and technicians have done an amazing job moving us one step closer to clearing up low Earth orbit.

'To develop this net technology to capture space debris we spent six years testing in parabolic flights, in special drop towers and also thermal vacuum chambers.' 

Space junk

Space is vast and largely empty - but this isn't the case for the immediate vicinity of our own planet.

Since the 1960s, there have been over 5,250 launches into space. These have resulted in tracking 42,000 objects orbiting the Earth, of which 23,000 remain - from old bits of rockets to tools dropped by astronauts.

The US Space Surveillance Network keeps an eye on the pieces larger than five centimetres in low Earth orbit and those bigger than one metre in geostationary orbit. The total mass of all the junk currently encircling the planet is an estimated 7,500 tonnes. 

Map showing all the geostationary objects orbiting Earth

NASA tracks the larger pieces of debris in geostationary orbit © Orbital Debris Program Office/NASA

With close to 1,500 artificial satellites - not forgetting the International Space Station - there is a very real concern about the damage that these objects can cause if they collide.

So far there have been more than 290 fragmentation events recorded generating some 750,000 individual pieces larger than one centimetre.

As more and more launches occur, the risk of further collisions is only increasing.

Cleaning up space

This is what the RemoveDEBRIS project is aiming to tackle. Developed at the University of Surrey, it is designed to test a range of different techniques to work towards cleaning up low Earth orbit.

Following the success of the net, it will now test a new camera that is hoped will further help in tracking space debris, before moving onto another clean-up method in the form of a harpoon. 

A hole produced by space debris

The debris can cause significant damage to satellites and the International Space Station © Orbital Debris Program Office/NASA

Eventually, RemoveDEBRIS will deploy a membrane that will drag along Earth's atmosphere, and bring back the entire experiment burning down.

Prof Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre, says, 'We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of the net technology. While it might sound like a simple idea, the complexity of using a net in space to capture a piece of debris took many years of planning, engineering and coordination, but there is more work to be done.

'These are very exciting times for us all.'