By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies. You can find out more by following this link Accept & Close ›
Space Blog

Fishing Space Debris from orbit

Millions of pieces of space debris are orbiting Earth dating back to Sputnik-1 in 1957. Could we use fishing nets, harpoons and sails to reel them in?
Almost 5,000 launches since the beginning of the space age have left orbits littered with defunct satellites, parts of rockets, fuel tanks, tools lost by astronauts and other fragments which threaten to damage and destroy active spacecraft.

As more satellites are launched every year, collisions are becoming increasingly likely. In Low Earth Orbit (LEO) objects move at around 7.5 km/s (the equivalent of travelling from Guildford to London in six seconds). This speed means that if two objects collide they will create thousands of other pieces of debris, as happened with the 2009 collision between the Russian Kosmos 2251 and US Iridium 33 satellites. SSTL encountered the problem first hand when a piece of debris from an Ariane rocket severed the gravity gradient boom of the Cerise mission just one year after its 1995 launch– this was the first verified case of two objects colliding in space.

Cerise mission

Scientists worry that this could result in a cascade of collisions known as the Kessler Syndrome, where the amount of debris increases exponentially, with the potential to seriously impede opportunities for new missions and degrading, or eventually, stopping the vital services satellites provide.

Space debris mitigation measures are gradually being defined and brought into action by national and international space agencies around the World. Best practice dictates that satellites should have some ability to manoeuvre into a re-entry trajectory at end of life to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years. SSTL attempts to comply with these guidelines for all of its missions, ensuring that where spacecraft with propulsion are launched, sufficient fuel is retained until the end of the mission so that it can be removed from ‘busy’ orbits, lessening the chances of a future collision. 

However, not all missions manage to adhere to these mitigation guidelines. The 8-tonne Envisat satellite, for example, lost contact with ground controllers last year and is now stuck in an orbit that is estimated to take 150 years to re-enter the atmosphere. Until it re-enters, this object and others like it will pose a large and on-going risk to other satellites and the services that they deliver. 

It is clear that as well as mitigation, active removal of large debris objects from orbit is also necessary to control the space debris problem. Currently, the best estimates suggest we need to remove between 5-10 objects from the busiest orbits every year to stabilise the number of objects orbiting the Earth, and avoid the onset of a Kessler Syndrome scenario.

Developing de-orbit technologies has never been more urgent and the race is on to find a suitable solution to the space debris problem. SSTL is currently working on a satellite design that carries a net based capture system to catch debris and tow it down into the Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up and be destroyed. This is a simple system that hopefully won’t have to be tailored to each individual item of space debris, making it cost-effective over the long term. It’s not the only debris removal project that takes inspiration from fishing– Astrium is working on a project to harpoon threatening debris from close range and pull it downwards to burn up in the atmosphere using a propulsion system.


A team at the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), meanwhile, has a range of projects looking at de-orbiting solutions using a more passive approach, though still with inspiration from the maritime domain. Among these is Cubesail – a project that will use a deployable sail to drag a Cubesat back into the Earth’s atmosphere for burn-up. Cubesail is a demonstration of a system that will be applicable to larger satellites and other objects in the future. Other projects that the SSC are working on involve innovative inflatable structures and new Electric Propulsion technology to address the challenge. Cranfield University has also created a de-orbit sail that will be tested on the UK’s space technology demonstration mission TechDemoSat-1 which is due to launch later this year. These are just a few of the many ideas being developed for space debris removal that range from using lasers to gently ‘nudge’ debris into new orbits, to robotic arms and even grasping ‘tentacles’.

Cranfield de-orbit sail on TechDemoSat-1

There is no quick and easy solution to space debris but it is a problem that needs to be addressed if we are to protect our valuable resources in space. Cooperation of the entire global space community is the only way that we can make progress in preventing collisions. And the longer we wait, the more likely it is that we run the risk of a cascading Kessler Syndrome.





31 July 20130 Comments1 Comment

Back to Blog

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
 Security code

About This Blog

SSTL's lowdown on cost effective space technology, small satellites, space science and interplanetary exploration.

Post Archive

October 2016(3)
September 2016(1)
July 2016(1)
June 2016(1)
April 2016(1)
March 2016(4)
February 2016(3)
December 2015(2)
November 2015(3)
October 2015(3)
July 2015(1)
May 2015(0)
May 2015(1)
April 2015(1)
March 2015(2)
February 2015(2)
January 2015(2)
December 2014(1)
November 2014(2)
October 2014(2)
September 2014(1)
July 2014(2)
June 2014(3)
May 2014(1)
April 2014(1)
March 2014(1)
February 2014(2)
January 2014(2)
November 2013(3)
October 2013(2)
September 2013(2)
July 2013(3)
June 2013(2)
May 2013(2)
April 2013(4)
March 2013(1)
February 2013(3)
January 2013(5)
December 2012(6)
November 2012(5)
October 2012(4)
September 2012(4)
August 2012(1)
July 2012(6)
June 2012(1)
May 2012(2)
April 2012(5)
March 2012(3)
February 2012(3)
January 2012(1)
December 2011(1)
November 2011(4)
October 2011(5)
September 2011(4)
August 2011(3)
July 2011(4)
June 2011(6)
May 2011(3)
April 2011(1)
March 2011(3)
February 2011(2)
January 2011(3)
December 2010(2)
November 2010(1)
October 2010(2)
September 2010(4)
August 2010(4)
July 2010(2)
June 2010(2)
May 2010(2)
April 2010(4)
March 2010(4)
February 2010(4)
January 2010(3)
December 2009(2)
November 2009(5)
October 2009(2)
September 2009(6)
August 2009(4)
July 2009(3)
June 2009(1)
May 2009(2)
March 2009(2)
February 2009(5)
January 2009(2)
December 2008(3)
November 2008(6)
October 2008(5)
September 2008(3)
August 2008(5)
June 2008(1)
May 2008(3)
April 2008(5)
March 2008(1)
February 2008(1)
January 2008(3)
December 2007(3)
November 2007(6)
October 2007(3)
September 2007(3)
August 2007(1)
July 2007(1)
June 2007(2)
May 2007(2)
April 2007(1)
January 2007(3)
December 2006(1)
September 2006(1)
May 2006(2)
January 2006(1)
December 2005(7)

Show/Hide All

If you like Space Blog, why not subscribe by RSS by clicking the subscribe button, or to recieve updates by email click the subscribe by email button.

*Comments Policy
SSTL reserves the right not to publish comments if they are deemed inappropriate.