Maria Montero

Deploy the space harpoon

Watch out, starwhales. There’s a new weapon for the interstellar inhabitants that you threaten with your planet-smashing gigaflippers, put to the test as we speak. This small-scale version may only be good at removing dangerous orbital debris, but it will eventually pierce your hypercarbon skins and irredeemable sun hearts.

Literally a space harpoon. (Credit: Airbus)

However, it would be irresponsible of me to speculate beyond what is possible today with technology, so a summary of the current capabilities of the harpoon suffices.

The space harpoon is part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods to reduce space debris. There are thousands of little pieces of who knows what clogs our orbital neighborhood, ranging from microscopic to potentially catastrophic.

There are as many ways to remove these rogue items as there are sizes and shapes of space junk; it may be enough to use a laser to sharpen a small part towards orbital decay, but larger items require more practical solutions. And apparently all nautical in origin: RemoveDEBRIS has a net, a sail and a harpoon. There is no cannon?

You can see how all three elements are meant to operate here:

The harpoon is intended for larger targets, for example, full-size satellites that have malfunctioned and are drifting away from orbit. A simple mass driver could pull them towards Earth, but capturing them and controlling their descent is a more controlled technique.

While a common harpoon would simply be thrown by the likes of Queequeg or Dagoo, in space it’s a bit different. Unfortunately, it is not practical to hire a harpooner for EVA missions. So everything has to be automated. Fortunately, the organization is also testing machine vision systems that can identify and track targets. From there, it’s just a matter of shooting the harpoon at it and tying it down, which is what the satellite demonstrated today.

This little Airbus-designed item is much like a toggling harpoon, which has a piece that flips over once it passes through the target. It’s obviously a single-use device, but it’s not particularly large and several could be deployed in different intercept orbits at once. Once rolled up, a trailing sail (seen in the video above) could be implemented to speed up re-entry. All of this could be done with little or no propellant, greatly simplifying operation.

Obviously, it is not yet a threat to the star stars. But we will get there. We will have good monsters one day.