In space, no one can keep it clean, with a total mass of all objects in orbit equaling about 9,900 tons.
To combat this, Chinese scientists have developed a huge sail, which they say can be used to change the orbit of dead rockets and satellites so that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and don’t become space junk.
The 25 square meter ‘de-orbiting sail’ works by slowly decelerating its defunct payload until it is taken out of orbit.
The debris will then burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within a few years — a process that would otherwise take more than a hundred years.
The sail has been developed and successfully tested by Institute 805 of the Shanghai Academy of Spacecraft Technology (SAST) in China, according to the Anglophone Chinese newspaper Global times†
The news comes after the British government announced last month that it plans to tackle the millions of pieces of debris in Earth’s orbit.
This includes regulating commercial satellite launches, rewarding companies that minimize their footprint in Earth’s orbit, and doling out an additional £5million for technologies to clean up space debris.
The 269 square foot sail is about a tenth of a human hair’s thickness
The sail was installed on the payload capsule of the 300-kilogram Long March-2D Y64 launch vehicle, which launched into space on June 23, 2022.
It was successfully deployed in space on June 26, according to SAST . system engineers
The sail uses the drag created by the thin atmosphere to slow down the defunct spacecraft it’s attached to, allowing it to leave its original orbit and enter Earth’s atmosphere
HOW MANY ITEMS ARE IN THE JOB?
- Rocket launches since 1957: 6.200
- Number of satellites in orbit: 13.100
- Number still in space: 8.410
- Number still works: 5,800
- Number of debris objects: 31,500
- Breakups, explosions etc: 630
- Mass of objects in orbit: 9,900 tons
- Prediction of the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models
- More than 10 cm: 36,500
- 1cm to 10cm: 1,000,000
- 1mm to 1cm: 130 million
Source: European Space Agency
The sail was tested by installing it on the payload capsule of the 300-kilogram Long March-2D Y64 launch vehicle, which launched into space on June 23, 2022.
The sail was successfully deployed in space three days later, according to the state-run Global Times, which spoke with SAST system engineers on Tuesday.
It’s less than one-tenth the diameter of a hair, meaning it can be installed on many spacecraft, the space agency claims.
According to SAST, this was the first time in the world that a de-orbiting sail system has been deployed in such a way.
The sail uses the drag created by the thin atmosphere to slow down the defunct spacecraft it’s attached to, allowing it to leave its original orbit and enter Earth’s atmosphere, where it burns up.
This can shorten the orbital period of the debris from more than a hundred years to less than ten years, although in this case it should only take two years.
According to the European Space Agency, an estimated 13,100 satellites have been launched into orbit since 1957, of which 8,410 are still in orbit and 5,800 are still functioning.
The total mass of all objects orbiting the Earth would be equal to about 9,900 tons, while statistical models suggest there are 130 million pieces of debris from 1 mm to 1 cm in size.
It could pose a threat to active spacecraft, for example when a functioning US communications satellite, Iridium-33, collided with a non-functioning Russian one, Cosmos-2251, in 2009 as they both passed the far north of Siberia.
This single crash generated more than 2,300 fragments of debris and knocked out Iridium 33.
A computer-generated image of objects in orbit that are currently being tracked. About 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, that is, not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item
Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellites are responsible for more than half of close encounters in orbit, even with only 1,500 of the planned 12,000 launched so far, data shows.
Satellite operators like SpaceX are constantly forced to make adjustments to avoid encounters with other spacecraft and pieces of debris.
With hundreds of Starlink satellites in orbit, the number of dangerous approaches will continue to grow, according to a study from the University of Southampton.
Researchers found that Starlink satellites are involved in an average of 1,600 close encounters with other spacecraft each week, including some where the two objects come within about half a mile of each other, according to one Space.com Report†
If two spacecraft crashed into orbit, they would generate a cloud of debris that in turn would threaten other satellites operating in the same area of space.
Last month, the British government announced a series of new measures designed to boost space sustainability and help clean up the millions of shards hiding near Earth orbit.
The measures include an ‘Active Debris Removal’ program, in which a new spacecraft is launched to physically collect and destroy pieces of space debris floating around the Earth.
The project, which will receive £5 million in funding from the UK government, is set to start in 2026.
They also plan to regulate commercial satellite launches and reward companies that minimize their footprint in Earth’s orbit.
Britain also wants to launch a spacecraft capable of capturing two dead satellites and forcing them back into Earth’s atmosphere, causing them to burn.
If successful, it would be the first feat of its kind to prove that a single spacecraft can remove more than one piece of debris.
The spacecraft could also potentially stay in orbit and be refueled so it can tackle more clutter.
Britain wants to launch a spacecraft that can remain in orbit and remove multiple pieces of debris, forcing them to burn up in Earth’s upper atmosphere, as shown in this image above
WHAT IS SPACE SPACE? OVER 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEAD SATELLITES, CONSUMED ROCKETS AND FLAKES OF PAINT ENTER ‘THREATEN’ TO THE SPACE INDUSTRY
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that could be as large as spent rocket stages or as small as flakes of paint – in orbit alongside about $700 billion (£555 billion) worth of space infrastructure.
But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 16,777 mph (27,000 kmh), even tiny bits of satellites can seriously damage or destroy.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups don’t work in a vacuum and temperatures are too low for substances like tape and glue.
Magnet-based grabs are useless because most of the debris in orbit around the Earth is non-magnetic.
About 500,000 pieces of man-made debris (artist’s impression) are currently circling our planet, consisting of disused satellites, scraps of spacecraft and used rockets
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, require or cause vigorous interaction with the debris, which could push these objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have seriously exacerbated the problem of space debris.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecom satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low Earth orbit used by satellite navigation satellites, the ISS, China’s manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that need to maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.
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