European satellite deployed a space sail

The European Space Agency (ESA) has published an image showing the successfully deployed ADEO-N drag sail. It will be used in an experiment to accelerate the descent from orbit of the ION Satellite Carrier platform.

Ways to recycle old satellites

Every year, space debris creates more and more threats to spacecraft in near-Earth orbits. To prevent the problem from spreading, engineers have developed many ways to prevent an increase in the population of dangerous objects. One of them is the de-orbiting of satellites which operation is coming to an end. This task can be achieved in different ways, for example by using propulsion systems. However, this requires leaving a special reserve of fuel, which could otherwise be used to continue the operation of the satellite itself.

A satellite with an unfolded drag sail in the artist’s image. Source: HPS GmbH

An alternative to such a technique is the installation of special sails on spacecraft. They increase their area, which leads to a sharp increase in the braking effect exerted by the upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere and, as a result, a much faster descent from orbit.

Successful deployment of the drag sail

The ADEO-N sail is designed specifically for this purpose. It is a polyamide membrane with an aluminum coating with a total area of 3.6 m2, attached to four metal booms. The sail was in a 10-centimeter box attached to the body of the ION Satellite Carrier satellite platform launched in 2021. 

The ADEO-N drag sail after deployment. Source: HPS GmbH

In December 2022, mission specialists gave the command to activate the sail. The photos taken by a special camera showed that the deployment took place in normal mode. Now engineers will carefully monitor the changes in the orbit of the spacecraft to assess exactly what impact the sail will have on it. If everything goes as planned, the device will burn up in the atmosphere in about 15 months, while without a sail it would take from 4 to 5 years.

You can also read our article about how humanity could use a solar sail for space flights.

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