SENER Aeroespacial and the UC3M open a laboratory to integrate a deorbit device to eliminate space debris

03/02/2021 (International)
SENER Aeroespacial and the UC3M open a laboratory to integrate a deorbit device to eliminate space debris

SENER Aeroespacial and the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) have set up a laboratory to develop a new device to deorbit space debris based on electrodynamic tether technology. The laboratory, located in SENER’s facilities in Tres Cantos (Madrid, Spain), will be used to integrate the avionics system into the deorbit device that is currently under development thanks to E.T.PACK, a FET-OPEN project funded with €3million by the European Commission. The avionic system of the device belongs to the activities of an Industrial Doctorate funded by the Government of the Community of Madrid.

The deorbit device that SENER Aeroespacial and UC3M are developing together with other partners of the E.T.PACK’s consortium will allow satellites to be eliminated at the end-of-life, instead of the actual trend of leaving them in orbit. The drag force on the electrodynamic tether causes the re-entry of the satellite and its elimination at the upper layers of the atmosphere. Unlike conventional technologies, it does not need a propellant and works passively.

The opening of this new laboratory kicks off the process of integrating the avionics system into the deorbit device. The consortium will have the first complete prototype of the device ready by late 2022 and plans to mature it in a later project that will end with an in-orbit demonstration by late 2024. The goal is to have the system operational in 2025.

E.T.PACK consortium includes UC3M (Coordinator), SENER Aeroespacial the universities of Padua (Italy) and Dresden (Germany), the Fraunhofer Institute (Germany) and the Spanish company Advanced Thermal Devices. E.T.PACK has also received support from the Government of the Community of Madrid through one of its Industrial Doctorates.

E.T.PACK, an autonomous deorbiting kit

The main goal of E.T.PACK is to develop an autonomous deorbit device or “kit” based on electrodynamic tether technology. The small kit will be mounted on satellites in the future. Once activated from the ground, the kit will deploy an electrodynamic tether that will interact passively with the Earth's magnetosphere, producing a drag force that will cause the satellite to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up. The electrodynamic tether, a very thin aluminum tape of about a couple of centimeters wide and a couple of kilometers long, uses the ionospheric plasma and the geomagnetic field to generate an electrical current that, thanks to an electrodynamic effect, gives rise to a force known as Lorentz drag. This force deorbits the satellite and produces the re-entry, thus contributing to the sustainable use of the outer space.

SENER Aeroespacial engineer Sergio García González, also PhD candidate at UC3M thanks to an Industrial Doctorate funded by the Government of Community of Madrid and supervised by Prof. Gonzalo Sánchez-Arriaga (E.T.PACK coordinator), is responsible for the integration of the avionic system into the kit. Mr. García explains that "there are already systems for deorbiting satellites, but they use conventional propulsion, which increases their cost. Because space debris is a growing problem, institutions like the European Commission and the Government of Community of Madrid are sponsoring research to find effective, low-cost alternatives. Our space tether system could be one of those solutions."

Sergio García from SENER AeroespacialThe reality is that, at present, no country requires companies to the deorbit their satellite at the end of life. The system proposed by E.T.PACK aims to reverse this trend by providing a light, low-cost and highly effective system. The deorbiting kit will be able to communicate with the ground, stabilize a satellite of mass up to 1,000 kg and control the deorbiting maneuver to prevent collisions with other objects.

SENER and the UC3M have a successful history of collaborations, including HIPATIA, the evolution of the helicon plasma thruster for space propulsion; the development of photon technologies; and a demonstration CubeSat mission, along with other innovations for the space sector.

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