Scientists have taken inspiration from Moby Dick to find a solution to hazardous space debris.

Like Herman Melville's fictitious whale hunter, Captain Ahab, they plan to use harpoons to spear orbiting junk that threatens satellites and astronauts.

The European Space Agency (ESA's) Clean Space project turned to the ancient technology after investigating numerous options, including nets, clamping systems and robotic arms.

A test mission known as e.DeOrbit is planned that will fly a hi-tech tethered harpoon into space between 500 and 600 miles above the Earth in 2021.

Using sophisticated sensors and an intelligent control system, the probe will select a suitable target probably weighing several tonnes and tumbling.

Once snared, the junk will be reeled in and steered down to make a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere.

More than 17,000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup are known to be circling the Earth, posing a serious threat to space missions.

Even a one centimetre-wide nut could slam into a valuable satellite with the force of a hand grenade.

The harpoon is designed to deal with large items, such as rocket upper stages, that present an even greater danger.

Sooner or later they will be involved in collisions, resulting in debris clouds and a potential chain-reaction of destruction like that depicted in the movie Gravity.

The harpoon concept has already undergone tests on the ground at plane-making company Airbus's defence and space division facility in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.