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Tiny Cube Drags Space Debris From Orbit

Soulskill posted about 4 years ago | from the no-not-the-borg dept.

Space 77

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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77 comments

Tiny cube (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#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...

Re:Tiny cube (3, Informative)

deniable (76198) | about 4 years ago | (#31639986)

Oh come on, you could at least provide a link. [timecube.com] Warning, contents will induce WTF moments in readers.

Re:Tiny cube (1)

jjoelc (1589361) | about 4 years ago | (#31642306)

The guy is even scarier in person... I was stuck doing support for Earthlink many a moon ago... and this guy called in for help... spent most of the time telling me all about his website. I'm slightly amazed it is still around... Scary!

Re:Tiny cube (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31643280)

Arrgh! It's like goaste for my reading brain

Re:Tiny cube (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 4 years ago | (#31643598)

Wouldn't a Laser mounted on ISS be more fun? Ignoring International Treaties. And could NASA make the Laser be seen in the visible spectrum, that way when I'm with my date we can sometimes look up at the sky and, (the rest is not PG-8/Barney rated...).

complete explanation here :) (1)

Xtifr (1323) | about 4 years ago | (#31644222)

Here [tvtropes.org]

Re:complete explanation here :) (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31655248)

I hope nobody heard me laughing out loud when I got to this sentence:
"These theories have been described by other physicists using the technical scientific term "being wrong"."

It's like Encyclopedia Dramatica without the porn.

Should be required (1)

Laser Dan (707106) | about 4 years ago | (#31639700)

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.

Re:Should be required (1)

krou (1027572) | about 4 years ago | (#31639744)

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."

Re:Should be required (4, Interesting)

Jenming (37265) | about 4 years ago | (#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.

Re:Should be required (3, Insightful)

Kjella (173770) | about 4 years ago | (#31640976)

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:Should be required (2, Interesting)

azmodean+1 (1328653) | about 4 years ago | (#31657780)

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 scheme might be worthwhile, particularly for refining extremely rare materials that may have been used in satellite construction, but that day is really far off.

Unfurled once it reaches orbit? (0)

Low Ranked Craig (1327799) | about 4 years ago | (#31639712)

Maybe I'm not getting it, but it seems to me that the article says that the device is unfurled once the satellite reaches orbit, so it starts to decay the orbit immediately? This also seems incompatible with this statement: "The team is also hoping that CubeSail can act as a propulsion system, using 'solar sailing' to help satellites keep their orbits more efficiently."

Seems like a good idea, but I'd think you'd deploy it remotely once the satellite reached end of life?

Re:Unfurled once it reaches orbit? (4, Informative)

Scrameustache (459504) | about 4 years ago | (#31639748)

Maybe I'm not getting it, but it seems to me that the article says that the device is unfurled once the satellite reaches orbit, so it starts to decay the orbit immediately?

FTFS: "rocket stages in order to drag space debris from orbit"

The immediate deployment option is for things that immediatly become debris. A scheduled deployment would be used for satellite decomissioning.

Re:Unfurled once it reaches orbit? (1)

krou (1027572) | about 4 years ago | (#31639808)

I didn't see where in the article it said that it opens once it reaches orbit. My understanding was that they can instruct the device remotely. All they say is that the polymer sheet 'is folded for launch to be unfurled once in space'. Also, later on:

CubeSail will endeavour to demonstrate this "propellantless propulsion" by trying to shift the path it takes across the surface of the Earth by just a few degrees over the course of a year ... Once its mission is complete, CubeSail will be instructed to take itself out of orbit.

Re:Unfurled once it reaches orbit? (1)

Low Ranked Craig (1327799) | about 4 years ago | (#31640000)

I understand the mechanism - it's very straightforward. This is the quote: "It incorporates within its tiny frame a polymer sheet that is folded for launch to be unfurled once in space."

My bad for taking the article at face value. I think the New Scientist article is better: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18705-nanosatellite-sets-sail-to-tackle-space-junk.html [newscientist.com] It even tell you how big the sail is...

Re:Unfurled once it reaches orbit? (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | about 4 years ago | (#31640062)

this device wouldwork to degreade an orbit due to drag in LEO but in HEO,Geosynchronous or other higher orbits, it could have a reflective coating to use sun light to alter the orbit.

Did they just... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31639724)

invent a bag?

Re:Did they just... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31639754)

One that works in space and opens itself when triggered? Yes, apparently.

Is 25 sq m big enough? (1)

fotbr (855184) | about 4 years ago | (#31639746)

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:Is 25 sq m big enough? (2, Informative)

DogDude (805747) | about 4 years ago | (#31639828)

From what I read, it's not designed to take out entire satellites, but small debris that poses significant problems to existing satellites.

Re:Is 25 sq m big enough? (1)

fotbr (855184) | about 4 years ago | (#31639884)

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.

Re:Is 25 sq m big enough? (3, Insightful)

sjames (1099) | about 4 years ago | (#31639878)

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.

Time Cube exposes evil. Cubelessness is an Evil. (1)

mattcsn (1592281) | about 4 years ago | (#31639790)

Oh, tiny cube. Thank goodness. This is proof that I need more coffee right now.

Cube? (5, Funny)

bunratty (545641) | about 4 years ago | (#31639818)

measures 10cm x 10cm x 30cm

Someone tell these guys what a cube is.

Re:Cube? (4, Informative)

marcansoft (727665) | about 4 years ago | (#31639938)

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.

Re:Cube? (1)

maxume (22995) | about 4 years ago | (#31640014)

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:Cube? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640852)

How about BrickSat? :-)

Re:Cube? (1)

D Ninja (825055) | about 4 years ago | (#31640020)

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.

3 kg? (1)

dangle (1381879) | about 4 years ago | (#31640876)

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

Re:3 kg? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31641522)

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 me he always had a good time when know-it-all freshly-educated hopefuls came in with their first designs, often using unglued electrolytics (this was in 1998), whereupon the would perform his vibration tests and the designers would spend several minutes sweeping his workshop clear of small thingumabobs that had come unstuck.

I assume surface-mount technology has taken much of the pleasure out of that test.

A sail? (4, Funny)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 4 years ago | (#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".

Re:A sail? (2, Funny)

xs650 (741277) | about 4 years ago | (#31639902)

When I was younger, parachutes were used to make things fall out of the sky slower, not faster.

Re:A sail? (4, Funny)

eln (21727) | about 4 years ago | (#31639990)

Get with the times, grandpa. Making yourself fall slower is what the previous candy-ass generations did. These days, skydivers use lead parachutes and reach much faster speeds than your loser generation ever did.

Re:A sail? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640140)

Uh... have you not been paying attention in high school? A feather falls as fast as a lead block. Disregarding friction, that is. ;)

Re:A sail? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31642162)

Uh... have you not been paying attention in high school? A feather falls as fast as a lead block. Disregarding friction, that is. ;)

Guess what working principle parachutes use. ;-)

Re:A sail? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31641526)

Unlikely to be a next generation, though.

Re:A sail? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31645150)

Well, this parachute does slow the satellite down, at least until it falls out of orbit and gravity takes over.

You know what STILL stays on my mind? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31639904)

Your freakin' Windsong, that's what. Enuff already !!

Is this really a net gain? (1)

Normal_Deviate (807129) | about 4 years ago | (#31639978)

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:Is this really a net gain? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640466)

This sounds quite similar to the "do you get less wet if you run in the rain?" [bbc.co.uk] problem with the added factor of an increase in apparent area. As with that question, I suspect that the "would a satellite sweeping a larger area for a shorter period cause more or fewer collisions?" question is a bit more complex than expected.

Re:Is this really a net gain? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640666)

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.

Companion Cube? (4, Funny)

Bugamn (1769722) | about 4 years ago | (#31640104)

This Weighted Companion Cube will accompany the satellites through space. Aparture Science is sure this will reduce the number of insane satellites in orbit.

now to... (1)

hitmark (640295) | about 4 years ago | (#31640128)

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:now to... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640284)

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

Re:now to... (1)

nschubach (922175) | about 4 years ago | (#31640566)

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.

Re:now to... (1)

hitmark (640295) | about 4 years ago | (#31641046)

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.

Big-time, Super-Big-Spendarifick Graffiti Project (1)

graffartist (1777252) | about 4 years ago | (#31640502)

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 visited, if we ever get our collective arses out to the belt)

Re:Big-time, Super-Big-Spendarifick Graffiti Proje (1)

jjoelc (1589361) | about 4 years ago | (#31642422)

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...

"nano"? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31640680)

I'm so tired of this buzzword. Nanotechnology was supposed to be about molecular machines to manufacture things cheaply and fix the human body.
This is a fucking tin can in space. It's about 1/10 the size of Sputnik. It's a decisatellite. It's not "tiny".

STOP CALLING EVERYTHING NANO.

Doesn't look like a cube (0, Redundant)

Space Guerilla (1766806) | about 4 years ago | (#31640734)

Why are marketing teams slinging out buzz words like Nano and cube all the time. When they are not even close to being scientifically accurate.

The dimensions are 10mm x 10mm x 30mm. I guess Rectangular Sail doesn't have the same ring to it.

Its not Nano either. That would mean... 10^-9 meters

What if they start putting nano-machines in space, cubed nano machines? It should be called a Deci-Satellite (10^-1). That way the magnitude is accurate (1 decimeter ~ .328 feet)

Why can't we use a tractor beam? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 years ago | (#31641000)

It seems to be all the rage on Start Trek. And what about the Earth's gravity? Mama Terra seems to losing her power. Gaia my ass.

Galaxy Quest? (1)

IonOtter (629215) | about 4 years ago | (#31643544)

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!

A solution in search of a problem. (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 4 years ago | (#31645374)

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.

Requires Control - Balloons are Spheres (1)

teeks99 (849132) | about 4 years ago | (#31647744)

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...all of which could fail over the years it would take to deorbit (after years of sitting dormant during the spacecraft's operational lifetime).

Instead, why not inflate a balloon? There are already large weather-balloon type ones available, and it wouldn't take much gas to inflate it, since the external pressure is zero! Once the balloon is inflated, it would have a orbital cross section that is similar to the polymer sheet, but since the balloon is roughly a sphere, you don't have to worry about controlling it.

The downside to this is that if a balloon gets hit by a micrometeorite, it could pop (I imagine SSTL's polymer sheets wouldn't handle one too well either). Luckily, NASA and others have been working on an inflatable structure that uses gas to inflate, then once it is inflated it hardens so that it no longer relies on the pressure of the air to keep it in place. This would allow for it to be punched full of holes and still keep providing some drag benefit.

Re:Requires Control - Balloons are Spheres (1)

BillPatel78743 (1720614) | about 4 years ago | (#31649048)

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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