Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited will have its technology for deorbiting space debris put to its most ambitious test next year, during a satellite mission that will be conducted in league with TriSept Corp., Millennium Space Systems and Rocket Lab.
The technology, known as Terminator Tape, involves placing a module on a small satellite that can unwind a stretch of electrically conductive tape when it’s time to dispose of the satellite.
“This tape will significantly increase the aerodynamic cross-section of the satellite, enhancing the drag it experiences due to neutral particles,” Tethers Unlimited says in an online explainer. “In addition, the motion of this tape across the Earth’s magnetic field will induce a voltage along the tape. This voltage will drive a current to flow up the tape, with electrons collected from the conducting ionospheric plasma at the top of the tape and ions collected at the bottom. This current will induce a ‘passive electrodynamic’ drag force on the tape.”
The increased drag should dramatically shorten the timetable for dragging a satellite down to its fiery atmospheric re-entry.
Tethers Unlimited has sent its Terminator Tape module into orbit aboard several small satellites, including the OTB-1 experimental satellite that was launched by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in June. But the Dragracer satellite mission that’s due for launch next year should provide the truest test, including a control experiment.
California-based Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing subsidiary, will build and operate the 25-kilogram (55-pound) Raptor-class satellite. Virginia-based TriSept is in charge of launch integration and mission management services. And Rocket Lab will include Dragracer on its Electron rocket for a rideshare launch from New Zealand in early 2020.
Once the satellite gets into orbit, it’s designed to split into two payloads. One of the payloads will trigger the deployment of Terminator Tape, while the other will experience atmospheric drag without the tape. Mission managers estimate that the tether-equipped payload will go through re-entry roughly two to four weeks after deployment, while the tapeless payload will stay in orbit for eight to 12 months.
“The Dragracer mission is all about providing an affordable, effective and scalable solution to the orbital debris challenge facing the LEO small-satellite market and the global space industry,” Mike Scardera, vice president of advanced concepts for Millennium Space Systems, said in a news release. “It is the first in a series of critical project missions we expect to launch with TriSept.”
TriSept’s president and CEO, Rob Spicer, said the Dragracer initiative offers a creative solution to the challenge posed by the thousands of small satellites that are due for launch in coming years. Some of those satellites may end up being equipped with self-deorbiting devices like Terminator Tape.
“Dragracer could ultimately help shape how the industry handles orbital debris for years to come,” Spicer said.