European engineers launched a satellite to the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday to track space junk and take it back to the earth, kicking off the RemoveDebris project.
The satellite will be stored at the ISS for a number of weeks, before being released by the orbiting platform's robotic arm to begin a series of operations in late May.
Two small cube satellites, or "CubeSats," are carried along, with one monitoring and classifying debris in orbit, and the other snaring objects with a net.
"The net, as a way to capture debris, 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 going with a robotic arm," the project's principal investigator Guglielmo Aglietti told Spaceflight Now, an online space news service.
The low cost is also a reason why the research team chose this method.
Led by the University of Surrey's Space Centre in Britain, the project costs about 13 million euros (nearly 16 million U.S. dollars).
Half of the expenses come from the European Commission, while the other half is supported by 10 partners such as Airbus and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited.
The engineers hope to prove that cleaning up space junk can be relatively inexpensive, which could be affordable by commercial companies or governments operating under budget limitations, said Aglietti, who called the project a "proof-of-concept."
"We all agree, in the space sector, that it is a good idea to start to remove larger pieces of debris, which are the ones that cause the major threat," Aglietti added.
Space junk is an ever-growing problem with more than 7,500 tons of redundant hardware now thought to be circling the earth, according to the European Space Agency.