Europe planning ‘surfing’ satellites

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a new spacecraft which can ‘surf’ past space debris.

There is a considerable need for ‘intelligent’ satellites that have the ability to move whilst in orbit and so avoid collision with orbital debris.

The threat is very real. This debris is in the form of spacecraft abandoned at the end of its operational life, or remainders of space missions and upper stages of launchers, along with all the fragments resulting from collisions and explosions in orbit.

ESA says the very existence of the more than 900,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 centimetre in size – large enough to damage operational satellites due to their high orbital speed – poses a serious threat to the sustainability of space activities. The amount of space debris has been rising exponentially, according to ESA.

ESA’s data shows:

  • of rocket launches since 1957 5450
  • of satellites launched into orbit 8950
  • of satellites still working 1950
  • Space debris tracked  22,300
  • Break-ups, explosions, collisions 500+
  • Amount of ‘Space Junk’ in orbit 8400 tonnes

Drill down into the data and ESA and the other space agencies say that there are more than 34,000 objects in space greater than 10cm in size. There are some 900,000 pieces which measure between 1-10cm, and a worrying 128 million objects measuring between 1mm-1cm.

Each fragment could pose a very real threat to existing satellites and future launch activity.

ESA, in conjunction with funding from the European Research Council, is working on ‘COMPASS’ a project to radically alter the current space mission design by exploiting natural and artificial orbit perturbations rather than counteracting them. The research team at Politecnico di Milano is jointly working on the project to develop methods that could allow satellites to surf’, exploiting the forces of nature to reach their desired orbit while avoiding collisions. This would mean significantly reducing fuel consumption. The long-term outcome would be to considerably reduce the high cost of space missions and to create new opportunities for space exploration and exploitation.


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