UK engineers are developing a system to harpoon rogue or redundant satellites and pull them out of the sky.
It is a response to the ever growing problem of orbital junk - old pieces of hardware that continue to circle the Earth and which now pose a collision threat to operational spacecraft.
The harpoon would be fired at the hapless satellite from close range.
A propulsion pack tethered to the projectile would then pull the junk downwards, to burn up in the atmosphere.
"Space has become a critical part of our infrastructure - from weather forecasting and Earth observation, to GPS and telecommunications," said the harpoon’s designer, Dr Jaime Reed, from Astrium UK.
"Space junk poses a real threat to these vital services if we do nothing about it, and so it’s very important we develop capture technologies to remove some of this material. Studies have shown that taking out just a few large items each year can help us get on top of the problem."
Dr Reed’s proposal is for a barbed spear about 30cm in length. It would be mounted on a "chaser satellite" that would edge to within 100m of a junk object.
Pictures sent to the ground would then be used to assess the target, before the chaser was moved to within perhaps 20m to take a shot.
Once the harpoon is hooked through the skin of the rogue satellite or rocket stage, the chaser could either pull on a trailing polymer cord itself or deploy a separate thruster unit to do the job of dragging the aimless drifter towards Earth.
This is research in its very early stages. The BBC has filmed firing tests of a prototype harpoon at Astrium UK’s Stevenage base.
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