Without These Simple Nets, We Could Be Stuck on Earth Forever

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Photo: ESA

Hurtling around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour is a field of space junk—large pieces, small pieces, teeny tiny pieces—that threaten the satellites we have come to take for granted. A tiny piece of metal, moving at these speeds, can destroy basically anything it hits, and in the worst case scenario, this field of space junk gets so thick that we can no longer send satellites (or space tourists) off the Earth: whatever we send up will just get hit and destroyed. 

We've become dependent on having giant, bus-sized satellites hanging out in space and communicating with Earth: GPS, weather forecasting, secure international phone calls, overseas flights, and financial trading depend, to some extent, on satellite communications. In order to keep those nice things, space agencies will need to figure out a way to clean up space junk.

Recently, the European Space Agency experimented with one such technology — a net that can capture a piece of space trash. Engineers put their net-ejector in a plane that could recreate, for brief periods, the weightless conditions of space and...tried to catch some metal.

As simple as it seems, this is actually is one of the best ideas running for how to capture the bigger pieces of debris. (Other ideas include harpoons, robotic arms and giant magnets.) Six years from now, ESA will actually try to capture a chunk of space debris with a net—let's just hope it works as well in space as it did on this plane.