Published: 28 October 2013

Surrey Space Centre pioneers ‘gossamer sail’ for deorbiting satellites

An innovative system for safely deorbiting satellites at the end of their life has been developed by the SSC for the European Space Agency.

The first of its kind in the world, the ‘gossamer sail system’ has been developed in response to concern about the increasing level of debris orbiting in space. The European Space Agency (ESA) project has involved the design, testing and qualification of the new Gossamer Deorbiter, which uses an innovative aerodynamic drag technique to deorbit telecommunication satellites. A large, ultra-light structure measuring 5 by 5 metres is deployed to decelerate a satellite in Low Earth Orbit, which then safely deorbits and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere, without causing any debris.

Unlike existing deorbiting systems based on chemical or electrical propulsion, the gossamer sail system is relatively simple and does not require propellant or electrical power throughout its deorbiting phase.

Professor Vaios Lappas of the SSC commented: “We are delighted to have completed the successful design, manufacture and testing of ESA’s Gossamer Deorbiter, the first of its kind internationally. The project has been able to show that the design of a low cost and robust end-of-life deorbiting system not only is possible but can also lead to tangible products with a strong commercial interest. We are looking forward working with ESA on the next steps to take this technology with our industrial partners to flight in the next year.”

Dr Sven Erb, Project Manager at the European Space Agency, commented: "The Gossamer Deorbit Sail technology is able to make spacecraft liberate their LEO orbit more quickly and burn up in the Earth atmosphere at the end of their life. This will help us to reduce the risk of catastrophic satellite collisions, which is crucial for maintaining a sustainable space environment for future generations. The mass-efficiency that Surrey Space Centre has achieved for this deorbitation device is key for its success in commercial space."  

The deorbiting system features a two-stage deployment process. Firstly a telescopic mast extends the sail deployment mechanism so that it will not interfere with other satellite appendages and protrusions. Then a large drag-sail of between 16 and 25 square metres is deployed.

 Extensive testing of the deorbiting system, simulating the harsh space environment, has been conducted at the Surrey Space Centre, which has led to its successful qualification. The system can be scaled for use with satellites in Low Earth Obrit (LEO) with a size of between 10kg and 1 tonne. Though intended mainly for LEO, it can potentially be used in higher orbits, making use of solar radiation pressure to perform end-of-life manoeuvres.

 The ESA Gossamer Deorbiter was funded from the ARTES 5.1 (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems) programme by the European Space Agency. ARTES 5.1 is dedicated to the long-term technological development of the satcom industry, under the ESA’s leadership. This includes research and development of new technologies and techniques in telecom satellites, and ground and user equipment for future or evolving satcom systems.

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