ESA Tackles Space Junk Issue with ‘Angel Wings’ for Satellites

Although this sounds like the future, real estate sales in the sky are on the rise. Major corporations and scientific research organizations are vying to send satellites into orbit for unorthodox reasons — to create free internet connectivity; strengthen GPS systems; addressing climate change; even analyzing Albert Einstein’s trippy general relativity equations.

But while people continue to advance in technology, scientists continue to worry about another big issue: We have found a new area of ​​the universe that can pollute. As of 2021, NASA said, more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “waste of space,” resides in our planet’s gravitational waves — and since then, SpaceX alone has sent hundreds of other satellites up there.

Normally, when they’re done with their instruments, scientists just wait until things orbiting Earth begin to decay and eventually burn up in our atmosphere. This natural process, however, can take a very (very) long time.

So, hoping to carve out a clean future for our space-y dreams, the European Space Agency has announced the empowering promise of its new, prototype aluminum-clad sails. This device can ride up to the surface of the satellites and help them drift at any time.

The concept is called the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System, or ADEO, braking ship — and in late December, the smallest of its kind completed its last successful demo mission since the program’s start in 2018.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s prototype braking sail concept.


How does it work?

In fact, ESA folded the 3.5-square-meter (38-foot) spacecraft until it would fit into what essentially looks like a 10-centimeter (4 inches). The scientists then attached this part to an autonomous spacecraft called the ION satellite carrier. ION was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket on June 30, 2021.

Then, in December 2022, the canvas was used to display a silvery polyamide fabric secured to four carbon-reinforced arms placed in an X shape. That increased the so-called “satellite carrier’s atmospheric surface drag.” , which refers to the energy produced by the atoms in the near atmosphere moving in a direction opposite to the relative motion of the Earth’s lower body. You can think of drag as friction, but with air.

With such a strong drag effect, the spacecraft began to drop its altitude at a rapid rate, accelerating the demise of the satellite: burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The ADEO-N spacecraft will ensure that the satellite will re-enter in about a year and three months, otherwise it would have been re-entered in four to five years ,” said Tiziana Cardone, an ESA design engineer who oversaw the project. a statement.

The Earth is seen from a distance from the ION satellite view.  Covering most of the screen is part of the ship's broken space.

A camera view from the ION satellite after it released the sail.


For a better mental picture of all this, ESA thinks of the silver sail as the “angel’s wings” of the satellite, helping it gently float to its death. The official name of ADEO’s latest mission was, appropriately enough, “Show Me Your Wings.”

Further, the department says that this sail can be raised or lowered depending on the type of satellite it is connected to.

“The biggest difference is about 100 square meters in size and takes up to 45 [minutes] “The smallest canvas measures 3.5 square meters and operates in just 0.8 seconds!”

A pull-only system like this is not a new idea. According to NASA, such devices represent a “common deorbit tool” for low-Earth orbiting satellites, and they offer an advantage because they are easy to handle and can be stored in a safe manner. you fight a lot.

But what is interesting about the recent success of ESA and ADEO is that it seems to be working very well, in line with the widespread efforts to reduce the huge problem of space debris. For example, last year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a “five-year rule” to remove satellites, from the previous 25 years, and the ESA itself has a big step to deal with pollution of space.

“We want to create a zero-waste policy, which means that if you bring an airplane into orbit you have to get rid of it,” Josef Aschbacher, ESA director, said in a statement last year.

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