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SpaceX Has Launched an Experimental Space Junk Sweeper Into Orbit

2 minute read

Space may be about to get a lot less cluttered.

A Monday launch by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private aerospace company, saw a Falcon 9 rocket lift off from Florida packed with three tons of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). But the launch — the firm’s 53rd to date — also carried some unconventional cargo: an experimental system known as RemoveDEBRIS, which scientists hope will help clean up Earth’s space junk-littered upper atmosphere, CBS reports.

Space junk is a serious problem in Earth’s lower orbit, where there are currently more than 500,000 pieces of defunct satellites, used rocket boosters and other space junk, according to NASA. While many are no larger than a marble, they still pose a threat to satellites and other orbiting structures: In 2015, a rogue piece of an old Russian weather satellite barreling along at eight miles per second forced astronauts in the ISS to take temporary shelter.

Scientists hope RemoveDEBRIS will help. The system, developed by the U.K.’s University of Surrey Space Center (SSC) and co-funded by the European Commission, will be assembled by ISS astronauts before being deployed for a few tests to see how well it captures miniature satellites and pulls them out of orbit.

Read more: You Should Worry (a Little) About Falling Space Debris

The first trial will involve firing a net to capture the satellites, which “is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk” compared to retrieving debris using a robotic arm, according to Guglielmo Aglietti, director at the SSC.

Another test will involve a retractable harpoon, which is “maybe simpler” but “a bit more risky because you have to hit your debris in a place that is suitable,” Aglietti said. “Clearly, you have to avoid any fuel tanks.”

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Write to Eli Meixler at eli.meixler@time.com