A sail that deploys to propel a cubic satellite using solar power – developed by researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – suggests a sustainable way to clear dangerous debris from space for years to come .
More than 27,000 orbital debris currently littered space, NASA reported. In low Earth orbit, space debris can travel at up to 15,700 miles per hour, creating serious hazards to spacecraft and astronauts.
To clean up some of this waste, Embry-Riddle research students Ankit Rukhaiyar and Jonathon G. Nadeau created a prototype technology which would use nearly infinite solar energy to autonomously navigate low Earth orbit aboard a cube satellite (CubeSat), collecting trash.
Graduate student Ankit Rukhaiyar is co-leader of the solar-powered CubeSat prototype development project. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / David Massey)
The concept of a “deployable solar sail” was suggested by Michael Dupuis of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during discussions with students at Embry-Riddle’s Physical Engineering Propulsion Laboratory (EPPL).
“There is a big problem with space debris,” said EPPL director Dr Sergey Drakunov, professor of Physics of the engineer. “We want to bring a spacecraft into the space debris field, capture an object using robotics, and take advantage of the radiation from the solar pressure to bring this junk to a lower altitude, so that it can deorbit by herself.”
A fleet of CubeSats with deployable solar sails could navigate space, autonomously conducting long-term missions, Rukhaiyar said. “Because they are powered by solar radiation, the cleaning technology would not require fuel and is only limited by the survivability of the hardware components,” he explained. “At the end of its mission life cycle, with the sail deployed, the CubeSat could reenter the atmosphere and burn, preventing it from becoming space debris itself. “
The radiation pressure from the sun would speed up or slow down the orbit of the CubeSat, depending on whether the sail is facing the sun or not. “You would keep changing modes to bring debris about 300 kilometers above Earth, where atmospheric drag would burn them,” said Rukhaiyar, who recently graduated from his masters and will soon become a PhD. student at Embry-Riddle. “The radiation pressure is roughly constant on Earth, so we should have enough radiation pressure to carry out long-term cleanup missions. “
Solar energy “makes it possible to increase the orbit of the spacecraft for free, without using fuel,” Drakunov noted. Otherwise, heavy spacecraft must be launched into orbit using large amounts of expensive fuel.
The prototype version of Embry-Riddle, intended for technological demonstrations, uses a small CubeSat (6U) and a 32-meter sail. During testing, the solar sail prototype went efficiently and as planned. Rukhaiyar and Nadeau worked with other students to thoroughly test their designs, which were inspired by NASA concepts.
Now, researchers aim to increase the speed of technology and standardize the manufacture of blow-proof sails.
A solar-powered sail that deploys during its orbit around Earth in order to catch space debris is pictured here. (Photo: Embry-Riddle)
While solar energy is at the heart of the invention, Drakunov said student energy is the real key to success. “Students like Ankit and Jonathon come to Embry-Riddle with all their enthusiasm and they do great things,” he said. “They took an idea from NASA and they tested and tested it. During the pandemic, they had to work masked and separated from others. Their hard work will advance space technology, and they also help inspire another generation of student researchers. “
With Ankit Rukhaiyar and Jonathan Nadeau, Mr. Catherine Yopp, Adam Duke, Kyle Fox, Dylan Ballback and Michael Tomaso co-wrote the pre-printed item who describes this research, with Drakunov and Dr Patrick Currier, associate professor and associate president of Mechanical Engineering at Embry-Riddle.
Other research contributors included Embry-Riddle Ph.D. Firefly Aerospace student and design and analysis director Brigette Oakes, former Michelle Nadeau and graduate student Kayla Ormiston.
Physical Engineering Propulsion Laboratory
Since 2015, Embry-Riddle’s Physical Engineering Propulsion Laboratory (EPPL) has advanced innovative methods of space propulsion and associated feedback control to support space exploration and aeronautics. EPPL’s research has included advanced control systems for spacecraft, space-based autonomous systems, prototype space robots for asteroid mining, and in-orbit repair systems for spacecraft. The lab uses virtual reality and augmented reality tools to mimic space and planetary environments and improve human-machine interactions for space missions.
Posted in: Engineering | Space