Active removal of large space debris has been identified as a key activity to control the growth in the debris population and to limit the risk to active satellites. Over the last 5 years, Airbus Defence and Space has developed a harpoon capture system to achieve this.
The harpoon system is attractive due to its low mass, high reliability and robustness to target properties. It is a low risk capture system that places minimal requirements on the chaser. The projectile consists of a set of barbs to robustly hold the target, a crushable section to absorb excess impact energy, a capture confirmation system and a tether to connect to the chaser vehicle. The projectile is propelled towards the target by a deployer using nitrogen gas.
Previous projects have acted as a proof of concept and demonstrated a reduced scale harpoon system. In 2015 and 2016, Airbus Defence and Space has further developed and validated the harpoon system design as part of the European Space Agency’s Cleanspace initiative. Through this, a design able to capture a range of large debris items has been produced, with Envisat and an Ariane 4 upper stage used as reference targets. The whole system has then been breadboarded and tested at full scale in the relevant environment. This paper will present the results of the Cleanspace Harpoon project. This includes an overview of the system design, the impact and detumbling simulations performed as well as the results and conclusions from the test campaign.