Airbus designs harpoon to remove rogue satellites and space junk

To facilitate removal of junk and rogue satellites from outer space, European aerospace giant Airbus is working on a gigantic "space harpoon" that is reported to be high-tech and efficient.

The harpoon under development is around 3 feet long and while the size of the harpoon is not especially impressive, its capabilities is expected to be impressive.

The harpoon will essentially be attached to a larger spacecraft that can quickly and efficiently approach junk in space. The spacecraft will track objects and then quickly target the items with the harpoon.

The harpoon would be fastened to the spacecraft sturdily so that it does not get lost in space. The harpoon will be fired at around 82 feet per second toward the junk in space.

"The harpoon goes through these panels like a hot knife through butter," advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman told the BBC. "Once the tip is inside, it has a set of barbs that open up and stop the harpoon from coming back out. We'd then de-tumble the satellite with a tether on the other end."

Once the speeding target is captured and brought under control, it would be dragged down to the atmosphere by the chase vehicle and burnt to destroy it.

The latest Airbus harpoon has been designed to capture one of the biggest rogue items of the lot — Europe's defunct Envisat Earth observation platform.

This 8-tonne behemoth died suddenly and stopped functioning in 2012. "Envisat is the outlier," explained Wayman.

"If we can design a harpoon that can cope with Envisat, then it should be able to cope with all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit."