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Space United Kingdom Science Technology

Tiny Cube Drags Space Debris From Orbit 77

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-not-the-borg dept.
krou writes "A team from Surrey Space Centre has developed a device called a CubeSail, designed to be attached to satellites and rocket stages in order to drag space debris from orbit. CubeSail is a nanosatellite, weighing 3kg (6.6lb), and measures 10cm x 10cm x 30cm. Within its frame is a polymer sheet that unfurls itself once in space. 'The simple deployment mechanism features four metal strips that are wound under tension and will snap into a straight line when let go, pulling the sheet flat in the process.' The overall idea is that 'Residual air molecules still present in the spacecraft's low-Earth orbit will catch the sheet and pull the object out of the sky much faster than is normal.' Sir Martin Sweeting, the chairman of SSTL, who supported the research, said, 'We would be looking to put it on our own satellites and to put it on other people's spacecraft as well. We want this to be a standard, essential bolt-on item for a spacecraft; and that's why it's very important to make it small, because if it's too big it will interfere with the rest of the spacecraft.' The team is also hoping that CubeSail can act as a propulsion system, using 'solar sailing' to help satellites keep their orbits more efficiently."
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Tiny Cube Drags Space Debris From Orbit

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  • Tiny cube (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:24AM (#31639682)

    Gah!
    Am I the only one who read that as "Time Cube Drags Space Debris From Orbit"? Slashdot ows me a new monitor. This one's all covered in coffee now...

  • Well it's definately a good idea to require something like this on all new satellites, but the major problem of all the existing debris still remains.

    I was hoping that the polymer sheet would also slow down existing debris that passed nearby, but with such a thin sheet and such high speeds I doubt there would be any significant effect.

    • by krou (1027572)
      FTA: "The group also envisages that a mature system would even be sent to rendezvous and dock with redundant spacecraft to clean them from orbit."
      • by Jenming (37265) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @12:18PM (#31640150)

        It seems to me getting things into space is _really_ expensive. I would be much more impressed with a device that took space debris and dragged it all together. That way it could eventually be recycled in space. Instead of just burning it up.

        • by Kjella (173770) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @01:41PM (#31640976) Homepage

          From what I gather, so is significantly changing an orbit and you'd have to do that twice, one to get it to the recycling point and once more to get it to whereever you want to go. Also in lower orbits you need thrusters to stay up or your orbit will decay, which means you can't just dump them somewhere because there's a constant fuel cost. From what I gather this is for when they're out of thrusters and the orbit is decaying, to speed up the deorbit. Without doing more it'd come down anyway, just not so quickly so there'd be much more space junk up there.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by azmodean+1 (1328653)

          Theoretically that's a good idea, but then you need a whole industrial complex in space, we're talking smelting, refining, forming, assembling, QA, etc... I don't think there's enough debris up there to make all that worthwhile, and hopefully we will be generating less space debris in the future, not more, so it won't be getting any "better" for your space recycling idea.

          Now if we ever really did move to large scale manufacturing in earth orbit, probably based around captured asteroids, then that sort of s

  • Is this sail really big enough to do any good? Sure, it can drag itself around, and maybe some of the smaller cube-sat type things made by colleges, but is a 25 sq m sail really going to matter much to a full-sized satellite?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by DogDude (805747)
      From what I read, it's not designed to take out entire satellites, but small debris that poses significant problems to existing satellites.
      • by fotbr (855184)

        I got the exact opposite -- it's supposed to be attached to things yet to go up, so that when they die, they can be hauled down quicker. Or it's supposed to help as a form of propulsion. They don't seem to know what they want to use their new toy for.

    • by sjames (1099) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:48AM (#31639878) Homepage

      Yes. 25 m^2 is a good bit of surface area. It's not going to stop these things in an instant, but it would certainly make their orbits decay much sooner.

  • Oh, tiny cube. Thank goodness. This is proof that I need more coffee right now.
  • Cube? (Score:5, Funny)

    by bunratty (545641) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:40AM (#31639818)

    measures 10cm x 10cm x 30cm

    Someone tell these guys what a cube is.

    • Re:Cube? (Score:5, Informative)

      by marcansoft (727665) <hector @ m a r c a n s o f t.com> on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:56AM (#31639938) Homepage

      Sounds like it's a CubeSat, a standardized tiny satellite that can be launched in large groups (relatively) cheaply. CubeSats are nominally 10x10x10, but you can have double width and triple width versions.

    • by maxume (22995)

      I don't know, "Rectangular Prism-Sat" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

      And cubesat seems to at least get the idea across.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        How about BrickSat? :-)

    • by D Ninja (825055)

      It's actually known as a 3U (Unit) CubeSat. It really is three 10x10x10 cube satellites stacked together. Given the various restraints on such a small technology, it sometimes makes more sense to combine a few of them together so you'll have enough power, room for payloads, etc on your satellite as a whole.

      • by dangle (1381879)

        That actually seems pretty heavy to someone like myself with no aerospace engineering experience. Is this par for the course in satellite design?

        • by maxume (22995)

          Hubble is probably on the large side of things, but it has a mass of 11,110 Kg.

        • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Is this par for the course in satellite design?

          Yup, pretty much. Haven't done satellite design myself, but I know an engineer who tests satellite modules before deployment. The G forces (vibrations) experienced during takeoff are hideously high. As a result, the components need to be both very sturdy and as light as possible (because of cost issues). Since a component that is not sturdy enough to take the vibrations turn into junk in orbit, the designs tend to be on the heavier side of the equation.

          He told

    • by houghi (78078)

      The last should have been 10 inches and was rounded up. So it is actually 10x10x10.

    • Re:Cube? (Score:5, Funny)

      by gmuslera (3436) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @01:57PM (#31641140) Homepage Journal
      The one measured there already assimilated 2 more of its kind.
    • by arielCo (995647)
      Yeah, mine's at least 160cm x 160cm x 220cm ;)
    • Re:Cube? (Score:4, Funny)

      by B Nesson (1153483) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @05:16PM (#31642704)
      Man, you guys must hate ice cube trays.
  • A sail? (Score:5, Funny)

    by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:42AM (#31639832)

    Residual air molecules still present in the spacecraft's low-Earth orbit will catch the sheet and pull the object out of the sky much faster than is normal.

    When I was younger, we called this "a parachute".

  • I just watched Transformers last night so I know where this idea came from!

  • cube ? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Spaham (634471) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @11:44AM (#31639848)

    "10cm x 10cm x 30cm"

    what a cube !

  • A satellite's lifetime collision risk depends on the volume of space it sweeps out before the cumulative drag adds up to a de-orbit. The sail does not reduce that volume, it just sweeps it out in a shorter time. I guess there is some net benefit, since a collision with the sail will create a smaller debris cloud.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The lifetime collision risk depends not only on the volume of space it sweeps out, it also depends on the amount of junk in its orbit.
      Taking down satellites faster will reduce the amount of junk for active satellites. It won't do anything for the satellite it is attached to directly - but it will help reduce the collision risk for other satellites. Which, for companies like EADS or SSTL means they can keep launching satellites.

  • by Bugamn (1769722) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @12:14PM (#31640104) Journal
    This Weighted Companion Cube will accompany the satellites through space. Aparture Science is sure this will reduce the number of insane satellites in orbit.
  • find a way to attach this to stuff already up there, to get it out of the way faster.

    if they could maneuver when up there and attach on its own, maybe one could send up a bunch of them in one go and have them start cleaning the place.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      As homework, name the military applications presented by cheap autonomous self-attaching de-orbiters.

    • by nschubach (922175)

      I thought that's what this was at first. I thought, "Finally, someone is going to clean up!"

      Then I finished reading the summary.

      So why is it so hard to send something up to even smack this stuff out of orbit? I mean, the military apparently tracks all this junk floating around up there and it's all so small it would burn up on re-entry. So why not send up such a small autonomous craft to find and redirect such trash to get it out of there? It could even be something as simple as a small space plow.

      • by hitmark (640295)

        hmm, plow. Still, after i did the initial comment, it dawned on me that what one could send up was something similar that would act as a "barrier" for smaller objects. And after being hit by a solid number of them, drop back into the atmosphere.

  • So funny, was thinking about the rather disturbing state of space-junk in orbit just last week, let myself drift off, to brainstorm. Wound up thinking what-if... NASA gave grants to artists, if they can solve some space issue. Wound up with a drawing of a chute of aerogel-like materials, built to gather up space-junk; which is then shot out into a trajectory to mash into an asteroid out in the belt, WHAM; SLAM; BAM; Walla! You have a great found object space graffiti piece, maybe the first? (later to be vis
    • by jjoelc (1589361)

      when I read your subject line, my first thought was of some geek artist manuvering the existing space junk into specific positions, so that when viewed from earth, it would read:
      "If you can read this..."
      Or maybe a line drawing of Tux...

  • by ClosedSource (238333) on Saturday March 27, 2010 @02:44PM (#31641520)

    But first, the tranya.

  • Sarris: What you fail to realize, is that with your shields down, my ship will tear through yours like tissue paper!

    Jason: Yes. But what you fail to realize is that my ship is dragging MINES!

  • ObFrink (Score:2, Funny)

    by sharkey (16670)
    There could be cubes the size of gorillas in there!
  • Anything in a low enough orbit low enough that the 'CubeSail' would make a difference, is in an orbit low enough that it's going to come down anyhow.

  • Something like this would be really great for the industry. If we could cut in half the amount of time it took every satellite to re-enter, the orbital debris problem would quickly get a lot better.

    However, the idea proposed by this team seems rather complex, because the polymer sheet is two-dimensional, it requires an active control system to keep the width of the sheet oriented towards the direction of travel. They talked about changing the center of mass and using magnetic torque control systems...a

    • That would require the complexity (and weight) of tanks for some gas, which would need to still be available when the satellite is being decommissioned.

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