Every time a space shuttle or the International Space Station has a near miss with a piece of space junk, we’re reminded just how much of the stuff litters the area around our planet—millions of total pieces amounting to more than 5,500 tons. The orbital debris includes everything from old rocket stages to shed paint flakes, and the situation worsened last year when two satellites collided, sending forth showers of debris. It’s a problem that grows steadily worse without an apparent solution, but now University of Surrey scientists say they’ve developed a possible solution: a tiny clean-up device with sails.
To help tidy up Earth’s orbit, the device could be attached to any piece of space-going technology. The CubeSail, which would measure more than 16 feet square when unfolded, is packed into a compartment that measures 4 inches wide and deep, and a foot long. When the sail is deployed, metal strips that are wound up inside the container straighten out and pull the sail flat. Despite its small size, the system could deorbit an object of up to 1,100 pounds, Surrey scientists say. CubeSail works by pulling against the small amounts of atmospheric gases present at orbital heights. Although the density of air molecules is low, it’s enough to make the sail act like a parachute, slowing it down, dragging the dead satellite to a fiery reentry much sooner than it would have done otherwise [Discovery News].
CubeSail’s makers want to test it by the end of next year, testing the drag as the satellite orbits pole to pole. Their ultimate goal is for the sail to one day become an indispensable part of satellite missions. Says Martin Sweeting of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited: “We want this to be a standard, essential bolt-on item for a spacecraft; and that’s why it’s very important to make it small, because if it’s too big it will interfere with the rest of the spacecraft” [BBC News].
But CubeSails could also launch into space and operate on their own, using the tiny force of falling sunlight to operate a solar sail propulsion system. That has some imagining more exotic uses for the technology. Perhaps anti-satellite weaponry could be more passive, sending ground-controlled CubeSails into orbit, seeking out, attaching to, and ultimately destroying enemy satellites but without the mess [Discovery News]?
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Image: Univ. of Surrey/Astrium