Space is vast, but the bit around the earth is crowded with fifty years worth of satellites, rocket stages, and other debris. Ever since the collision of a defunct Russian communication satellite with a member of the Iridium constellation last year, the space community has redoubled its efforts to find ways of getting rid of the unwanted junk that’s taking up valuable real-estate in low-earth orbit.
So it’s no surprise that a concept nanosat from the University of Surrey and European aerospace behemoth Astrium is getting a lot of attention in the UK press today. CubeSail is a proof-of-concept technology for clearing old debris. The idea is simplicity itself; a 10×10×30 cm Nanosatellite will deploy a five meter square sail that will literally act as a drag chute: slowing the satellite as it passes through the vanishingly thin upper echelons of earth’s atmosphere. Eventually the satellite will sink back to earth, and chute and sat will burn up as they re-enter.
CubeSail should soon be available for deployment on anything under 500kg that you might want to someday get out of orbit. That’s cool, but it won’t be enough to deorbit the third stage of say a Russian Proton rocket (which weighs in at 2,400 kg). Nor would it be able to handle either of the satellites that collided last year.
Still, it is important that researchers are at least trying to address the problem. And if it works (and is accepted by industry), then there’s no reason to believe that larger versions couldn’t be used on heavier bits of space junk.
Univ. of Surrey/Astrium