A team at Purdue University developed a drag sail to attach to satellites to help them de-orbit to combat space debris. Unfortunately, the rocket carrying the test device, launched by Firefly Aerospace, exploded shortly after launch.
Space junk is a growing problem, with tens of thousands of small objects constantly whirling around the Earth. Each one is a potential hazard, capable of ripping apart solar panels and driving holes into spacecraft. One of the biggest sources of space junk is unused satellites, which remain in orbit even after the end of their lifetimes. These satellites cannot be controlled or steered, so they have the occasional bad habit of crashing into other things.
Mitigating this problem is essential to the future of spaceflight. One approach is to ditch unwanted satellites into the Earth’s atmosphere, which generally does a pretty good job of incinerating spacecraft.
A team of students, faculty, and staff at Perdue University’s Space Flight Projects Laboratory developed Spinnaker3, a drag sail that could someday be attached to satellites. The drag sail would slow the orbit of a satellite at the end of its mission until it can plunge into the atmosphere on its own.
Fully deployed, Spinnaker3 – named for the three-meter length of its carbon-fiver booms – was designed to be 194 square feet once fully deployed and was made of CP1, a fluorinated polyimide developed by high-performance materials designer NeXolve.
The test drag chute was attached to the upper stage of Firefly Aerospace’s latest Alpha rocket, with liftoff on September 2nd. Unfortunately, the rocket suffered a malfunction and exploded shortly after takeoff.
While this particular test ended in heartbreak, continued efforts like this are needed from space agencies and private companies around the world. There needs to be a global effort to reduce the growth of space junk and ensure the safety of crewed and uncrewed missions in Earth orbit. Here’s hoping that Spinnaker4 is a success.