The collision of American satellite Iridium 33 with Russian satellite Kosmos-2251 in 2009 created thousands of pieces of space debris larger than four inches in diameter. At the time, NASA insisted the International Space Station (ISS) was safe, while China suggested its satellites were threatened. Two years later, ISS had to perform a avoidance maneuver to put itself at a safe passing distance from incoming debris caused by the collision.
Some 29,000 pieces of space debris larger than four inches in diameter are known to orbit Earth, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The number of smaller particles reaches well into the hundred-millions. Every time a satellite explodes or some debris collides with another, that figure grows in a domino effect that may one day lead to a scenario known as the Kessler syndrome, in which debris is so prolific that orbit becomes unfeasible.
ESA is intent on addressing this problem by actively removing large objects of debris from orbit through an initiative called Clean Space. The initiative’s first mission, e.Deorbit, will involve using either a net or a robotic arm to capture one of ESA’s derelict satellites in low orbit and burn it up in an atmospheric reentry.
The agency has just revealed a net gun designed for the e.Deorbit mission by Polish company SKA Polka. A small version of the gun has been tested on a parabolic flight that simulates microgravity and has proven to be affective against low-flying aerial drones at ESA’s Industry Days event in May.
Projected to launch in 2023, Clean Space’s e.Deorbit mission will mark the first proactive effort to safely remove debris from space – a task that will only become more essential in the years to come.