In Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA) has committed to freeing up orbits within 25 years under the European Code of Conduct for Space Debris Mitigation – an ambitious target considering dormant satellites in low-Earth orbits of as little as 750km altitude can stick around for a hundred years or more, ticking time bombs that threaten new sats with obliteration as they hurtle through space.
The agency now says that it’s close to a real test of the method it’s hoping will get space junk out of the sky in the quarter century target – a Gossamer Deorbiter Sail. The first of its kind in the world, the gossamer sail system is an aerodynamic drag technique that’s designed to take down telecoms satellites when they reach the end of their life. The sail is ultra-lightweight and extremely compact, taking up a space of just 15x15x25cm on the satellite and weighing only 2kg. It can deploy in minutes, expanding to 5m2, creating enough drag to pull a craft of up to 700kg out of orbit to burn up in the high atmosphere.
The ESA said on Friday that the sail, which was developed by the University of Surrey’s Space Centre, has now been subjected to rigorous testing, including thermal, vibration and vacuum tests. The team is hoping to see it get its first tryout in orbit using a demonstration satellite by the end of 2014, providing it can get a piggy-back launch opportunity.
“We are delighted to have completed the design, manufacture and testing of ESA’s Gossamer Deorbit Sail, the first of its kind internationally,” said Professor Vaios Lappas from the university.
“The project has been able to show that the design of a low-cost and robust end-of-life deorbiting system not only is possible, but it can also lead to tangible products with a strong commercial interest.”
Although the gossamer sail is the first of its kind, it’s not the only sail-type system currently being tested. For example, NASA finished its first-ever deployment of a solar sail in low-Earth orbit, the NanoSail-D, at the end of 2011. The US space agency’s system measures around 9.3m2 when open and deployed in just five seconds in the test. The demonstration satellite “sailed” through space for 240 days – using solar radiation pressure to get around with the help of a control system – before burning up during re-entry in September that year. NASA is using the data from the mission to better understand the drag influences of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.