Engineers from the Shanghai Academy of Spacecraft Technology (SAST) in China have managed to implant a huge “deorbiting sail” in the remains of a recently launched rocket.
With the sail open – looking like a “giant kite” in space – the rocket remains have a greater surface area, causing them to experience more atmospheric drag. This causes the object to lose speed more quickly, and burn up as it reenters the atmosphere. The project is an effort by the country to reduce the amount of space junk in Earth orbit.
The device was installed in the capsule that protected the satellites of the Yaogan-35 mission, during the launch of the Long March-2D rocket, on June 23. After releasing the satellites, the 25 square meter sail was successfully deployed on June 26th.
The drag sail is low cost, being made of extra-thin materials, with a thickness of less than a tenth of the diameter of a hair. According to SAST, this type of sail allows a 300 kg payload capsule to re-enter the atmosphere in up to two years, instead of orbiting the planet for several decades.
Because it is lightweight and easily extendable, this means the system can be installed aboard rockets and satellites. The system had already been tested before on a small satellite, in 2019, with a smaller sail of 2.25 square meters (as you see in the image that illustrates this article).
The dangers of space junk
It is worth remembering that China is not the only one concerned with the problem of space debris. A Japanese company recently announced that it is developing a system that removes dead satellites from Earth’s orbit through a magnetic coupling system.
In addition to the Chinese, the European Space Agency (ESA) also intends to use the technology of deorbiting sails, as indicated in the tweet below.
Drag sails unfurl at the end of a spacecraft’s mission to speed up its decent and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
This reduces the risk of it colliding with an active satellite or breaking up into a cloud of dangerous #spacedebris. pic.twitter.com/RtEefiBGcB
— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) April 28, 2021
As the magazine highlights newsweek, of the nearly 5,000 satellites that are in Earth orbit, only 2,000 are still operational. In addition, there are around 27,000 debris around the planet, including fragments and rocket parts, ranging in size from 1 millimeter to several meters. In addition to the risk of collisions, space debris has the potential to cause accidents involving stations and manned spacecraft.