Satellites Could Be Deorbited Using New Gossamer Sail
December 22, 2013

New Gossamer Sail Could Bring Decommissioned Satellites Out Of Orbit

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University of Surrey have developed a new method to bring aging satellites back to Earth so they no longer pose a threat to spacecraft or other probes by continuing to orbit in a nonworking state.

The device is an ultra-lightweight “gossamer sail” that could be packed into satellites which could be deployed near the end of their life cycles, the European Space Agency (ESA) – which has funded the project through its Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems program – explained in a statement Friday.

“The increased aerodynamic drag would pull the craft out of orbit to burn up in the high atmosphere, reducing the risk of catastrophic collisions and creating a sustainable space environment for future generations,” the ESA added.

At launch, the sail is compact and weighs just two kilograms, but in mere minutes it can expand to five meters by five meters and is said to be capable of bringing a 700 kg satellite out of orbit. The sail has an extremely-lightweight carbon-fiber frame and a sail made of aluminized Kapton is thinner than the diameter of a human hair.

ESA said the unit is primarily intended for use on low-orbit satellites, including those used by phone, data communication and messaging service providers. For those at higher altitudes, the sail could potentially be used along with solar radiation for descent with the assistance of an attitude control system.

The gossamer sail had undergone rigorous thermal, vibration and vacuum testing, the developers said. They hope they will be able to conduct an in-orbit trial using a demonstration satellite before the end of next year.

“Once in orbit, the sail will be deployed for testing,” ESA said, noting the initial tests will last between two and three weeks and will demonstrate solar-sailing propulsion for high-orbit satellites. Afterwards, the sail would be rotated to increase the effects of atmospheric drag and ultimately to deorbit the satellite.

Once it reached altitudes of 600km, there would be enough atmosphere to cause re-entry, causing the satellite to burn up in no more than 12 months. The gossamer sail would make sure decommissioned satellites could be retired as part of an ESA initiative to free up orbit within the next 25 years.

“We are delighted to have completed the design, manufacture and testing of ESA’s Gossamer Deorbit Sail, the first of its kind internationally,” Professor Vaios Lappas of the University of Surrey said. “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.”

“The impressive mass-efficiency and atmospheric effectiveness that Surrey Space Centre has achieved for the device will be key for its success in commercial space. The sail will be an important step in ensuring sustainable exploitation of space in the future,” added ESA technical officer Sven Erb.