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.

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Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czech Republic
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


  Infocentre

Published: 7 May 2018  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Innovation
Research policyHorizon 2020
SpaceSpace hardware
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Italy
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Sweeping up space junk

Photo of a Space satellite over the planet earth

© 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.”

Introducing D3

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 satellite’s 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 Earth’s 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.”

Keen customers

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 device’s 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.

Project details

  • Project acronym: D-ORBIT
  • Participants: Italy (Coordinator)
  • Project N°: 663392
  • Total costs: € 71 429
  • EU contribution: € 50 000
  • Duration: From February 2015 to May 2015

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