Chinese Spacecraft Unfolds Deorbit Sail

In a nutshell, it functions as a “kite” in space, slowing down a satellite gradually by increasing its windward area in orbit.


The amount of space debris in orbit continues to increase. Space surveillance networks record and track more than 30 000 pieces of space debris every year. Unidentified objects (UI) are becoming more common as our technology improves, and the space around our planet is becoming cluttered with junk we have sent into space for decades. In a worrying statistic provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), over one million objects larger than 1 cm are likely to exist.

This junk will not disappear on its own. It is up to us to clean up the garbage we send into space. In order to do so, we need to act now.

Recently, China launched a rocket that unfolded a 25-square-meter deorbiting sail to manage space debris. As the Global Times learned from the system developers on Tuesday, this was the first deployment of a deorbiting sail system in the world.

Institute 805 of the Shanghai Academy of Spacecraft Technology (SAST) developed a deorbiting sail device to help remove space debris and junk from orbit before spreading. The sail system was successfully unfolded in orbit on June 26 after being deployed on the payload capsule of the Long March-2D Y64 carrier rocket on June 23.

Using the sail system, a 300-kilogram payload capsule can successfully reenter Earth’s atmosphere within two years, releasing precious resources from orbit. The sail system stretches to 25 square meters, according to SAST developers.

A photograph of the deorbit sail by SAST unfolded in space. Image Credit: SAST.
A photograph of the deorbit sail by SAST unfolded in space. Image Credit: SAST.

The developers also revealed that the deorbiting sail set a record in terms of its size.

There is less than one-tenth of the diameter of a hair in the thickness of the sail, which is made of extra-thin materials. According to the SAST, such flexible, lightweight textiles allow the sail system to be installed on any mature spacecraft.

Deorbiting sails work like giant kites in space that slow down spacecraft once deployed, according to SAST.

According to the SAST, the thin sail slowly decelerates the satellite and gradually leaves the original orbit by creating aerodynamic resistance in the thin atmosphere of low-orbit environments.

For example, a small satellite with an orbital altitude of 750 kilometers and a weight of 15 kilograms can operate in space for 120 years if no deorbiting measures are taken after the end of its functional life. It is possible to reduce the deorbiting time of satellites to less than ten years by using the 2.25-square-meter deorbiting sail.

In September 2019, China tested a passive deorbiting sail system called Taurus that measured 2.25 square meters.

The presence of space junk poses a threat to spacecraft in orbit. Nearly 800 kilometers above Siberia, the US’s “Iridium 33” and the scrapped “Kosmos 2251” of the Soviet Union crashed back in 2009.

Besides destroying Iridium 33, the crash created a large amount of debris, distributed over more than a thousand kilometers in space, negatively impacting subsequent space programs.


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Source: Curiosmos

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