More than 5,500 tons of debris is believed to be cluttering space around the planet as a result of 50 years of abandoning spacecraft, leading to a threat of collision to any manned or unmanned spacecraft, the destruction of hugely expensive technology and the potential threat of large debris plummeting back to Earth.
The build-up of debris - expected to grow at a rate of 5% each year - is also believed to obstruct satellite television and other communications signals.
Scientists at the University of Surrey, working on the project funded by the European space company Astrium, have devised a 3 kg miniature satellite or "nanosatellite" fitted with a "solar sail".
"CubeSail" is a device which can be fitted to satellites or launch vehicle upper stages that are sent into orbit and then can be deployed to successfully de-orbit equipment that has reached the end of its mission.
A 5 x 5 m, 3 kg, deployable sail is being developed to fit in a 10 x 10 x 30 cm nanosatellite and will be used in a demonstration mission to be launched in late 2011 demonstrating passive means of deorbiting for future satellites.
Dr Vaios Lappas, lead researcher on the project and Senior Lecturer in Space Vehicle Control at the Surrey Space Centre, said: "Protecting our planet and environment is key for sustainable growth. CubeSail is a novel, low cost space mission which will demonstrate for the first time space debris/satellite deorbiting using an ultra light 5 x 5 sail stowed and supported on a 3 kg nanosatellite.
“Successful deployment and testing of the sail can enable a low cost/mass solution to be used for future satellites and launch vehicle upper stages reducing dramatically the problem of space debris.
"Following successful in orbit demonstration, the proposed deorbit system will be offered as a standard deorbit system for Low Earth Orbit missions for satellites with a mass of less than 500 kg at a very low cost."
CubeSail is due to be ready for launch on new satellites next year, and is expected to be available for shifting existing debris from 2013.
Dr Craig Underwood, Deputy Director of the Surrey Space Centre, and Reader in Spacecraft Engineering at SSC, said: “The launch of this innovative new technology is very timely. This week's announcement of the creation of the UK's space agency is evidence of the commitment to space initiatives and their huge potential for creating growth in the UK economy. At the same time, this exciting future is increasingly dependent on finding a sustainable approach to launching and disposing safely of spacecraft.
"Innovation in this area is crucial - and we're keen that a Centre like ours, able to give firms early experience of new space technologies at low cost – is central to the growing UK space industry.”
The Surrey Space Centre has a close working relationship with Astrium, part of EADS, focusing on technology innovation.
Dr Vaios Lappas is available for interviews. Please contact Howard Wheeler to arrange.
The Surrey Space Centre (SSC), a Research Centre of the Faculty of Electronics and Physical Sciences (FEPS) at the University of Surrey, is a world leading Centre of Excellence in Space Engineering, whose aim is to underpin the technical development of the space industry through its advanced research programmes. SSC, comprising 10 academic staff, 11 research fellows and over 60 postgraduate researchers, develops new innovative technologies which are exploited by the space industry.
Surrey's pioneering small satellite activities started in 1979 as an academic activity at the University, leading to the formation of a highly successful spin-out company – Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). ). Astrium acquired SSTL in 2009 and established a long-term strategic collaboration with the University to further advance the University’s cutting edge space research capacity.
The University of Surrey Space Centre (SSC) remains the world’s leading research centre for small, low cost space missions, generating leading research and bringing innovation to SSTL to push the boundary of low cost small satellite applications; to develop next generation low cost small satellite technologies.
SSC provides well focused space engineering education, postgraduate and industrial short courses, training the next generation space scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and business leaders. It has a large body of PhD, academic and industrial research, with a direct route through SSTL for rapid commercialization.
SSC's Academic Research Laboratories cover advanced multidisciplinary small satellite and space system engineering techniques for Earth orbit and interplanetary space; innovative communications, remote sensing, robotics and space science payloads for small satellites; and enabling technologies for low cost space exploitation and planetary exploration, working in close collaboration with SSTL.
The University of Surrey is one of the UK’s leading professional, scientific and technological universities with a world class research profile and a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Ground-breaking research at the University is bringing direct benefit to all spheres of life – helping industry to maintain its competitive edge and creating improvements in the areas of health, medicine, space science, the environment, communications, defense and social policy. Programs in science and technology have gained widespread recognition and it also boasts flourishing programs in dance and music, social sciences, management and languages and law. In addition to the campus on 150 hectares just outside Guildford, Surrey, the University also owns and runs the Surrey Research Park, which provides facilities for 140 companies employing 2,700 staff.
Surrey is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.