“Sails” to guide satellites and used rockets back to Earth

May 4th, 2009 - 2:17 pm ICT by ANI  

London, May 4 (ANI): Soon, satellites and spent rocket stages could deploy “sails” to guide them back to Earth much faster than they would otherwise fall out of the sky.

With space becoming ever more crowded, there is a need to remove redundant objects that could pose a collision threat to operational missions.

According to a report by BBC News, extending a sail on an old spacecraft would increase drag and pull it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

Major European space firm EADS Astrium says the scheme has great potential.

“It is an interesting solution, especially for the satellite that has no propulsion system at the end of its life,” scientist Brice Santerre told BBC News.

Santerre and colleague Max Cerf have been working on what they call the Innovative DEorbiting Aerobrake System (IDEAS).

The concept involves extending booms and sheeting from spacecraft to increase the amount of drag they experience from the residual air molecules still present at altitudes up to even 750km (470 miles).

“The principle of aerobraking is to increase the surface over mass ratio of an orbital object, to accelerate the fall-out by increasing the drag on the system,” Santerre said.

“To do that, we need to deploy a very light structure. That’s why we chose to use ‘gossamer structures’. These are composed of booms and very thin membranes,” he added.

Santerre and Serf have been developing an aerobraking sail concept for the forthcoming French Microscope satellite.

Microscope is a science mission that will investigate the force of gravity and the behaviour of free-falling objects in a test of what has become known as the equivalence principle.

The satellite will take about a year to make its measurements and will then have no further purpose.

Ideally, such a spacecraft would be removed from orbit, especially since it will be circling at an altitude where many important Earth observation satellites also operate.

“Microscope has no propulsion system so it cannot de-orbit by itself. If we were to do nothing, the fall-out duration would be between 50 and 100 years,” said Santerre.

By erecting their boom and membrane mechanism, Santerre and Serf believe Microscope could be brought out of the sky in less than 25 years, which meets international orbital junk mitigation guidelines. (ANI)

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