ESA successfully deploys braking sail for deorbiting small satellites

By Chris Young,
Published by Interesting Engineering, 9 February 2023

The new technology will help ESA quickly remove satellites from orbit to tackle the growing space debris problem.

The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully deployed a braking sail designed to deorbit a small satellite, according to a release.

The sail is called the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO), and it was launched to orbit in late December 2022 as part of a mission called “Show Me Your Wings.”

According to ESA, the demonstrator technology is attached to a CubeSat, allowing it to deorbit in a matter of months rather than the years it would otherwise take. It forms a part of its wider plans to reduce the amount of space debris accumulating in orbit.

ESA successfully tests CubeSat braking sail

The “Show Me Your Wings” mission is the ADEO system’s final in-flight qualification test. ADEO is a 38.7-square-foot (3.6 square meters) aluminum-coated polyamide membrane sail.

It bears a striking resemblance to the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2, which utilized sunlight for propulsion in a world first. However, ESA makes no mention of flight by light. Instead, its braking sail passively increases atmospheric drag, causing an accelerated decay in the CubeSat’s orbital altitude.

Ultimately, this will allow operators to deorbit satellites faster once their mission is complete, meaning they will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere rather than floating in orbit as space debris for long periods. The ADEO test system was designed to deorbit small satellites weighing between 2.2 and 220 pounds (1 to 100 kilograms). However, ESA explains that the sail can be scaled up to deorbit larger satellites.

Space sail technology to tackle space debris problem

In a tweet last week, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher wrote that the demonstration was a “positive contribution towards ESA’s Zero Debris Initiative.”

The European Space Agency says on its website that there are roughly 36,500 pieces of space junk measuring 4 inches (10 centimeters) orbiting our planet. Its Zero Debris Initiative aims to remove all satellites from valuable orbits once they are no longer in use.

The ADEO sail is light and easy to carry to orbit as it is deployed from a compartment measuring only 3.93 by 3.93 by 3.93 inches (ten by ten by ten centimeters). The unfurling process was captured on camera by Italian firm D-Orbit’s Ion satellite carrier, which deployed the system into orbit. You can watch the process in the video above.

ESA isn’t the only organization to test this type of technology. Last year, China also tested a drag sail by deorbiting a piece of space machinery that otherwise would have hung around as space debris.

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