A Space Tether could keep dead satellites from colliding with the ground

The E.T.PACK-Fly consortium, that comprises SENER Aeroespacial of Spain, the TU Dresden (Technical University of Dresden), the University of Padova, as well as the Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), a German start-up, has been awarded €2.5 million by the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Because of the high cost of removal, many spacecrafts remain in orbit after their missions are completed. As a result of this, as well as spontaneous orbital explosions caused by the severe space environment, a considerable amount of space debris has accumulated in Low Earth Orbit. They’re dangerous because when two things in orbit crash, a cloud of risky shrapnels for operating satellites is created.

E.T. PACK-Fly intends to solve this problem by inventing a device effective in deorbiting, or lowering the height of a space debris’ orbit until it is removed by reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The E.T. PACK-Fly equipment, unlike traditional propulsion systems, uses a disruptive technology termed an electrodynamic space tether, which does not need fuel.

This electrodynamic tether is a very aluminum tape (about two centimeters wide and a few kilometers long) that generates an electric current by utilizing the plasma surrounding the Earth and the geomagnetic field. Lorentz drag is a force caused by this electrodynamic process. This force does deorbit the satellite until it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere when the heat generated by the process eliminates it. The tether is a critical component of the deorbiting device, that is compact and light because it does not need fuel. It’s also made to keep the satellite’s attitude stable and to keep track of the deorbiting maneuver to avoid colliding with other objects.

Through its EIC Transition initiative, the EIC (European Innovation Council) supported the E.T. PACK-Fly project. The project will begin in September 2022 and run for 2.5 years, with the goal of developing a flight model for a deorbit device that will be put into orbit in 2025. The launch service agreement between RFA and SENER Aeroespacial is already in place. The E.T. PACK-Fly program is a follow-up to the E.T. PACK program, which was supported by the EIC as well.

In the domain of E.T.PACK, a maiden prototype of the deorbit gadget was created. “We are extremely thankful to the EIC for its faith in us and dedication to the development of technologies that allow for the long-term utilization of the space environment,” said Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, who is the UC3M’s Associate Professor and project coordinator for the E.T. PACK and E.T. PACK-Fly projects. “It’s critical to invest in revolutionary technology that can reduce space debris while also creating riches and new economic opportunities,” he says.

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