How can dangerous space debris be reduced?

Jon Lawson

Space debris is a real problem and it’s only going to get worse unless a practical solution is found. In May, when the debris from the Chinese Long March 5B rocket came down Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator commented, “Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris. It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”

According to the ESA, of the 12,000 satellites launched, some 7,520 are still in orbit. Around 4,500 are still working. However, alarmingly, the number of debris objects regularly tracked by space surveillance networks and maintained in their catalogue is about 29,140, with around 9,500 tonnes whizzing around above our heads. 

One approach to tackling this lot has been demonstrated by a consortium consisting of Boeing’s Millennium Space Systems, mission launch service provider TriSept, launch vehicle provider Rocket Lab and Tethers Unlimited. 

The Terminator Tape is designed to be deployed from a dying satellite to create additional drag and pull it toward the earth, burning it up quicker. The latest test, between two identical satellites, showed the 70 metre tape pulled one out of the sky after 8 months, while the satellite without the tape is estimated to be flying around for around 7 years. The team called the experiment ‘Dragracer’. 

“Thousands of satellites will launch over the next decade, creating serious congestion in low Earth orbit,” said Patrick Kelly, Ph.D., Dragracer program manager at Millennium Space Systems. “What we've proven is a way to safely and deliberately deorbit retired satellites. If a satellite has a two-year operational life, you're looking at a big piece of space debris sticking around for potentially decades. With drag tape, we significantly reduce the time it remains space debris, and it's one less piece of debris to track.”

Robert Hoyt, president of Tethers Unlimited added, “Dragracer is the first complete demonstration of safe and rapid deorbit of a satellite by the Terminator Tape Deorbit Module. The Terminator Tape is an affordable, lightweight, patented, and now flight-proven solution for responsible end-of-mission disposal of satellites to help ensure the long-term sustainability of space operations.”



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