The European Space Agency successfully tested a solar-sail-type device to speed up the deorbit time for a used cubesat carrier in Earth orbit. The so-called breaking sail, the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) was deployed from an ION satellite carrier in late December 2022. Engineers estimate the sail will reduce the time it takes for the carrier to reenter Earth’s atmosphere from 4-5 years to approximately 15 months.
The sail is one of many ideas and efforts to reduce space junk in Earth orbit.
“We want to establish a zero debris policy, which means if you bring a spacecraft into orbit you have to remove it,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General.
How much would you be willing to spend to remove a piece of space debris? Does $102 million sound like enough? That is how much a contract between the European Space Agency (ESA) and a Swiss start-up named ClearSpace SA is worth, and the entire contract is to simply remove a single piece of space debris.
A company called Tethers Unlimited has deployed its de-orbiting tether in a successful test on the Prox-1 satellite. The satellite is one of four that are carrying the device, called the Terminator Tape. Rather than stay in space for years or decades, and add to the growing problem of space debris, Prox-1 is using its Terminator Tape to slowly lower its orbit.
While working at the NASA Johnson Space Center during the 1970s, astrophysicist Donald Kessler predicted that collisions between space debris would become increasingly common as the density of space debris increases in orbit around the Earth – creating a cascading effect. Since 2005, the amount of debris in orbit has followed an exponential growth curve, confirming Kessler’s prediction.
Given that the problem is only going to get worse in the coming years, there is a growing demand for technologies that can remove space debris. Following a competitive process, the ESA recently contracted the Swiss startup ClearSpace Today to create the world’s first debris-removing space mission. This mission, known as ClearSpace-1, is expected to launch by 2025 and will help pave the way for more debris removal missions.
The growing problem of space debris in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) is garnering more and more attention. With thousands of satellites in orbit, and thousands more on the way, our appetite for satellites seems boundless. But every satellite has a shelf-life. What do we do with them when they’ve outlived their usefulness and devolve into simple, troublesome space debris?
Last summer, a new type of debris-hunting satellite was released from the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, a technology-demonstrator developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and the Surrey Space Center. The purpose of this satellite is to test whether satellites equipped with targeting software, a debris net and a harpoon are effective at combating space debris.
For the past few months, this spacecraft has been conducting a series of Active Debris Removal (ADR) exercises. About a week ago, according to a recent statement, the RemoveDebris satellite tested out its harpoon for the first time. As you can see from the video, the satellite successfully demonstrated its harpoon system and verified its ability to secure space debris and keep it from flying away.
Space junk is a growing problem. For decades we have been sending satellites into orbit around Earth. Some of them de-orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, or crash into the surface. But most of the stuff we send into orbit is still up there.
This is becoming an acute problem as years go by and we launch more and more hardware into orbit. Since the very first satellite—Sputnik 1—was launched into orbit in 1957, over 8000 satellites have ben placed in orbit. As of 2018, an estimated 4900 are still in orbit. About 3000 of those are not operational. They’re space junk. The risk of collision is growing, and scientists are working on solutions. The problem will compound itself over time, as collisions between objects create more pieces of debris that have to be dealt with.