Pinning Tails On Satellites To Help Prevent Space Junk

Low Earth orbit was already relatively crowded when only the big players were launching satellites, but as access to space has gotten cheaper, more and more pieces of hardware have started whizzing around overhead. SpaceX alone has launched nearly 1,800 individual satellites as part of its Starlink network since 2019, and could loft as many as 40,000 more in the coming decades. They aren’t alone, either. While their ambitions might not be nearly as grand, companies such as Amazon and Samsung have announced plans to create satellite “mega-constellations” of their own in the near future.

At least on paper, there’s plenty of room for everyone. But what about when things go wrong? Should a satellite fail and become unresponsive, it’s no longer able to maneuver its way out of close calls with other objects in orbit. This is an especially troubling scenario as not everything in orbit around the Earth has the ability to move itself in the first place. Should two of these uncontrollable objects find themselves on a collision course, there’s nothing we can do on the ground but watch and hope for the best. The resulting hypervelocity impact can send shrapnel and debris flying for hundreds or even thousands of kilometers in all three dimensions, creating an extremely hazardous situation for other vehicles.

One way to mitigate the problem is to design satellites in such a way that they will quickly reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up at the end of their mission. Ideally, the deorbit procedure could even activate automatically if the vehicle became unresponsive or suffered some serious malfunction. Naturally, to foster as wide adoption as possible, such a system would have to be cheap, lightweight, simple to integrate into arbitrary spacecraft designs, and as reliable as possible. A tall order, to be sure.

But perhaps not an impossible one. Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems recently announced it had successfully deployed a promising deorbiting device developed by Tethers Unlimited. Known as the Terminator Tape, the compact unit is designed to rapidly slow down an orbiting satellite by increasing the amount of drag it experiences in the wispy upper atmosphere.

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Astra Readies Secretive Silicon Valley Rocket; Firm Exits Stealth Mode, Plans Test Launch

After the end of the Second World War the United States and the Soviet Union started working feverishly to perfect the rocket technology that the Germans developed for the V-2 program. This launched the Space Race, which thankfully for everyone involved, ended with boot prints on the Moon instead of craters in Moscow and DC. Since then, global tensions have eased considerably. Today people wait for rocket launches with excitement rather than fear.

That being said, it would be naive to think that the military isn’t still interested in pushing the state-of-the-art forward. Even in times of relative peace, there’s a need for defensive weapons and reconnaissance. Which is exactly why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been soliciting companies to develop a small and inexpensive launch vehicle that can put lightweight payloads into Earth orbit on very short notice. After all, you never know when a precisely placed spy satellite can make the difference between a simple misunderstanding and all-out nuclear war.

More than 50 companies originally took up DARPA’s “Launch Challenge”, but only a handful made it through to the final selection. Virgin Orbit entered their air-launched booster into the competition, but ended up dropping out of contention to focus on getting ready for commercial operations. Vector Launch entered their sleek 12 meter long rocket into the competition, but despite a successful sub-orbital test flight of the booster, the company ended up going bankrupt at the end of 2019. In the end, the field was whittled down to just a single competitor: a relatively unknown Silicon Valley company named Astra.

Should the company accomplish all of the goals outlined by DARPA, including launching two rockets in quick succession from different launch pads, Astra stands to win a total of $12 million; money which will no doubt help the company get their booster ready to enter commercial service. Rumored to be one of the cheapest orbital rockets ever built and small enough to fit inside of a shipping container, it should prove to be an interesting addition to the highly competitive “smallsat” launcher market.

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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