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21 Aug, 2020 15:56

Upcoming mission will test drag sails to return rockets to Earth & reduce space junk floating in orbit

A newly developed drag sail will help rockets return safely to Earth following launches, while also preventing our planet's orbit becoming even more cluttered with floating space junk.

Researchers at Purdue University developed the prototype sail, dubbed Spinnaker3, which comes equipped with 3-meter long carbon fiber booms, creating an area of 18 square meters. 

The creation will be installed on a Firefly Aerospace rocket set for a November launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, along with six other “Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission” (DREAM) payloads.

It will be the maiden flight for the aerospace company, which hopes to declutter near-Earth orbit with help from the Purdue University engineers. 

“If we don’t get satellites or other launch vehicle components out of orbit, then eventually highly utilized orbits are going to become unusable for other space systems,” said David Spencer, a Purdue adjunct associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

The Spinnaker3 is designed to deploy once the host vehicle's mission to orbit is considered a success, with the Earth’s atmosphere providing the necessary drag to decelerate the deorbiting vehicle. 

The test will take place at an orbit altitude of about 200 miles but Spinnaker3, made of a translucent material called CP-1, is designed to deorbit vehicles from as high as 400 miles and above.

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US registered space vehicles are required to deorbit within 25 years of the end of their missions; the drag sail would allow spacecraft to deorbit even in the event that they ran out of fuel or became inoperable as ground-based teams could trigger the drag sail to deploy. 

This technology could significantly shorten the length of time to deorbit, thus freeing up much needed space in prime orbital real estate. 

The system could one day work in parallel to technologies such as SpaceX’s reusable rockets, to make space missions more affordable and more sustainable over the long term.

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