Did you know that to date some 8,950 satellites have been launched into orbit? According to the most recent estimates, around 5,000 of these satellites remain in orbit despite having reached the end of their lifespan and no longer serving a purpose.
The ever growing problem of space waste
It is estimated that only about 1,950 of these satellites remain operational, while the rest have become space junk. These now-defunct satellites are joined by thousands of pieces of debris, which are collectively referred to as “space junk”.
And this waste is a huge problem because there is currently no way to get this waste out of space safely. So far.
On Wednesday, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology announced that Chinese scientists had successfully deployed a drag sail to deorbit a recently launched Long March 2 rocket. The event marked the first time such an experiment has been performed with a rocket.
The drag sail is a kite-like membrane that measures 25 square meters (269 square feet) when fully deployed. It is also just one-tenth the diameter of a human hair in thickness, which did not prevent it from increasing atmospheric drag and accelerating the orbital decay of the final stage of the 300 kg rocket ( 661 pounds).
Drag sails offer an inexpensive and mature technological solution that can be used on any type of low earth orbit satellite that has become space junk. Since they are very flexible and lightweight, they can be folded into a small package and placed on a spacecraft before launch.
Once near the debris, they automatically deploy helping to return the spacecraft to the atmosphere, where it will disintegrate. Drag sails are a much faster option than letting the trash deorbit naturally, which can take years or decades.
China’s Space Debris Problem
It’s fitting that China finds a solution to this lingering problem, as the nation has been accused of allowing many of its craft to pollute space. In March 2022, a piece of a Chinese space rocket that was floating aimlessly in space after presumably participating in an October 2014 launch slammed into the moon.
Fortunately, no one was injured in the collision, but the debris could have caused significant damage if it made its way to the International Space Station.
Meanwhile, in November 2021, a group of mechanical engineers, led by Professor Jake J. Abbott of the University of Utah, devised a new space junk cleanup scheme that uses spinning magnets to manipulate orbital debris, making it easier to manage and collect it. The new concept relied on subjecting the debris to a changing magnetic field, which circulates electrons through the metallic debris in charged loops.