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‘Space tether’ could de-orbit space junk without using propellant

Professional Engineering

How the tether could look following deployment in orbit (Credit: E.T.Pack)
How the tether could look following deployment in orbit (Credit: E.T.Pack)

As more and more satellites are launched into space each year, the threat of collisions and space debris grows. A new project aims to tackle the issue to enable sustainable use of the space environment – all without propellant.

The consortium behind the project received funding of €2.5m from the EU’s European Innovation Council (EIC) today (17 May). The money will be used to develop the device, known as the electrodynamic space tether.

Due to the high cost involved, most satellites are not removed after their mission is completed. Combined with the threat of spontaneous explosions because of the harsh space environment, the issue has caused the accumulation of space debris in low Earth orbit, threatening future launches.

Co-ordinated by the University Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M) and involving the University of Padua in Italy, the Technical University of Dresden, the Spanish company Sener Aeroespacial and the German start-up Rocket Factory Augsburg, the E.T.Pack-Fly consortium aims to tackle the problem by developing a device capable of deorbiting space debris – decreasing its altitude until it is destroyed by re-entry into the atmosphere.

Unlike conventional systems, the electrodynamic space tether does not require propellant. Instead, the very thin and very long aluminium tape (about 2cm wide and 2km long) is designed to work by using the plasma and the geomagnetic field around Earth to generate an electric current. This electrodynamic effect results in a force known as the Lorentz drag, which deorbits the satellite. The tether is also designed to stabilise the orientation of the satellite, and to control the deorbiting to avoid possible collisions with other objects.

The project will start in September, aiming to launch a device into orbit in 2025. A first prototype was developed and built during the previous E.T.Pack project, also funded by the EIC.

“We are very grateful to the EIC for the trust it has placed in us and its commitment to the development of technologies that allow a sustainable use of the space environment,” said project co-ordinator Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga from UC3M. “It is important to invest in disruptive technologies that can mitigate the proliferation of space debris while generating wealth and new business opportunities.”

Lorenzo Tarabini, director of the project at Sener Aeroespacial, said: “This project gives us the opportunity to build and qualify for space, through a complete series of tests, a light, compact and completely autonomous platform for deorbiting the final stages of launchers.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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