London: As space experts are meeting to try to solve the growing problem of space junk, British scientists have invented a harpoon that could punch a hole in space debris and send it crashing safely back down to Earth.
The cloud of debris from 60 years of rocket launches threatens satellites and astronauts as it orbits the Earth, prompting the European Space Agency to look at ways of cleaning up the night sky.
British engineers at the satellite company Astrium have developed a harpoon that could be launched from a chase satellite to catch junk, reel it in and then send it plummeting through the atmosphere where it would safely burn up.
They have a prototype system which has passed tests on an old rifle range. Fired at 60mph the harpoon punches through the aluminium panels used to clad satellites.
Inventor Dr Jaime Reed told Sky News it could begin space trials in just four years` time.
"There`s a lot of stuff up there already that can - and will - come back to Earth," he said. "New satellites pose a threat to future satellites, so it`s something we need to look at and address."
Space debris can range from tiny fragments of metal to defunct satellites and spent rocket parts.
Nasa estimates there are 22,000 pieces the size of a cricket ball and another 500,000 the size of a marble orbiting the planet. Just a small lump smashing into a satellite at 35,000mph would blow it apart.