Sweeping up space junk
An EU-funded project developed and commercialised an innovative device for safely removing so-called space junk, inoperable and defunct satellites and other debris cluttering up Earth's orbit.
© Andrey Armyagov - fotolia.com
Space junk is the term used for the man-made objects orbiting our planet that no longer serve a purpose. Today, more than half a million pieces of such debris circle the Earth, including old satellites and spent rocket stages. As this refuse travels at speeds of up to 25 000 km per second, even a collision involving small fragments can damage an expensive operational satellite beyond repair.
The presence of space junk significantly increases the cost of satellite operations. Not only does it require constant monitoring, satellites have to continuously make debris-avoidance moves that waste precious onboard fuel. And as our mobile phones, car navigation devices, tablets, laptop computers and many more everyday applications depend on satellite information, the space junk problem will likely only get worse.
The first step to solving this problem is to stop the accumulation of new debris in orbit, says Monica Valli, head of programmes at D-ORBIT SRL, the company behind the EU-funded project To achieve this, we need to guarantee that anything we send into orbit will be removed once it is no longer needed.
The D-ORBIT project did exactly that through its innovative D-Orbit Decommissioning Device, or D3 an independent, smart device based on solid propellant technology optimised for decommissioning manoeuvres.
Installed directly on satellites and/or the initial launcher that propels the satellite into orbit, D3 quickly removes debris both safely and directly, either at the end of a satellites life or in the case of a technological failure. D3 is fully compliant with international space debris regulations, enabling operators of satellite constellations to keep their operational orbits free from uncontrolled satellites, thereby significantly reducing the risk of collision.
D3 was designed to ensure that when a satellite re-enters the Earths atmosphere, it does so in a well-defined area far away from populated areas.
Thanks to a high-thrust solid rocket motor, D3 is able to perform a direct re-entry manoeuvre that sets the hosting satellite into a direct re-entry path, says Valli. This kind of manoeuvre ensures operators that their spacecraft will disintegrate over the ocean and far away from populated areas.
In 2014, D-ORBIT started the development of D-Sat, a nanosatellite with a scaled down version of D3 used to validate the D3 approach in a realistic scenario. Launched in June 2017, D3 successfully decommissioned the D-Sat satellite, thereby validating the devices market potential.
It has since sparked substantial interest.
D3 is a commercial product, already available on the market, says Valli, noting that D-ORBIT SRL is currently negotiating offers with a number of customers and working with Thales Alenia Space Italia, a company that designs, operates and delivers satellite-based systems, on a study about integrating the D3 into one of their standard platforms.