Launch of space-debris-removal experiment delayed amid safety reviews

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LONDON — RemoveDebris, a space-junk-wrangling spacecraft  once slated to hitch a ride to the International Space Station with SpaceX in June, won’t launch until the end of 2017 or early 2018 to allow additional NASA safety reviews, according to the European project’s manager.

The 100-kilogram spacecraft, developed by a consortium of 10 European companies including Airbus Defense and Space and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., would be the largest and heaviest satellite deployed from the ISS.

“Nothing of this size has ever been launched from the ISS before,” said Jason Forshaw, RemoveDebris project manager at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre, which leads the consortium.

“Most of the things they are launching from there are cubesats, much smaller objects, 10 [kilograms] or so,” Forshaw said. “As you can imagine, we are progressing through the safety reviews and we are just going through those at the moment.”

Developed as part of a 15.2 million-euro ($17 million) project funded by the European Union, the RemoveDebris team signed a launch contract in September with NanoRacks, a Houston-based company specialized in deploying small satellites from the ISS. As it stands, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will hitch a ride to ISS aboard either the SpaceX CSR-13 or CSR-14 cargo resupply mission, targeted for late 2017 and early 2018, respectively.

The RemoveDebris will use a harpoon and net to demonstrate active removal of orbital debris. The main spacecraft will deploy two smaller cubesats, one of which will be captured by a net. However, the net will not be tethered to the main craft as it would be in a real-life scenario, due to safety concerns.

“The cubesat could bounce back and hit your main satellite, so for this mission, because it’s a demonstration, we got rid of the tether,” explained Forshaw.

The team will use a second cubesat to test vision-based navigation technologies for rendezvous in space, including a Lidar system and an optical camera. Afterwards, a boom with a fixed plate will extend from the main spacecraft and a harpoon will be fired into it.

“At the moment there are a lot of legal issues around capturing other people’s debris,” said Forshaw. “You can’t just go up there and capture someone else’s debris. That’s why for this mission we are actually ejecting our own little cubesats.”

At the end, the main platform will deploy a dragsail that will bring it to atmospheric re-entry within two years. The two cubesats used in the experiment will deorbit within a few months, Forshaw said.

The RemoveDebris project has no funding beyond the upcoming in-orbit experiment but the results are expected to inform the design of the European Space Agency’s e.Deorbit mission, which will attempt to remove the defunct remote-sensing satellite Envisat from low Earth orbit around 2023.

“Airbus UK and Airbus Germany have already started producing larger versions of these technologies to use on a much bigger mission, which are based on the technology developed for RemoveDebris,” said Forshaw.

Even though the experiment is the first of its kind, Forshaw believes that the development of active debris removal technology is progressing fast and will enable practical applications within years. However, he said, legal framework lags behind technology development and will likely hinder practical applications.

“There is no legal framework in place that would allow operators to go into space and remove other people’s debris,” said Forshaw. “ESA can do that because they own Envisat but if you wanted to remove, for example, a Russian object, there are no agreements in place.”