There’s already nearly 5,000 satellites orbiting earth, “and many of them are non-functioning space debris now, clogging up orbital paths for newer satellites,” reports Universe Today. Yet over the next five years we expect to launch up to 2600 more — which is prompting a search for solutions to “the growing problem of space debris in Low-Earth Orbit.”
Some exotic-sounding solutions involve harpoons, nets, magnets, even lasers. Now NASA has given Purdue University-related startup Vestigo Aerospace money for a six month study that looks at using drag sails to de-orbit space junk, including satellites, spent rocket boosters, and other debris, safely…Drag sails are a bit different than other methods. While the harpoons, lasers, and nets proposed by various agencies are meant to deal with the space junk that’s already accumulated, drag sails are designed to be built into a satellite and deployed at the end of their useful life… Once deployed, they would reduce an object’s velocity and then help it deorbit safely.
Currently, satellites deorbit more or less on their own terms, and it’s difficult to calculate where they may strike Earth, if they’re too large to burn up on re-entry… [D]rag sails offer an affordable, and potentially easy-to-develop method to ensure future satellites don’t outlive their usefulness.
The company was started by a Purdue associate professor of engineering who tells the site they’re building in scalability, so their sails can handle satellites that weigh one kilogram — or one ton.