NanoSail-D cleans up space junk

Given that our enthusiasm for launching satellites, etc. into the skies has resulted in a floating junk yard as older satellites become inoperable and new ones are sent up to join the old ones, it’s good to see news that NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has completed a successful trial project aimed at removing the debris. From the Nov. 29, 2011 news item on Science Daily,

After spending more than 240 days “sailing” around Earth, NASA’s NanoSail-D — a nanosatellite that deployed NASA’s first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit — has successfully completed its Earth orbiting mission.

The flight phase of the mission successfully demonstrated a deorbit capability that could potentially be used to bring down decommissioned satellites and space debris by re-entering and totally burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. The team continues to analyze the orbital data to determine how future satellites can use this new technology.

This technology sounds remarkably like an idea for cleaning up space junk that Dr. Kristen Gates presented at a conference last year. From my Aug. 10, 2010 posting (this section was originally excerpted from the Fast Company article, The Most Beautiful Way to Clean Up Space Junk: A Giant GOLD Balloon [scroll about 1/2 way down]),

Dr. Kristen Gates has one idea, and it’s beautiful and simple. It’s dubbed GOLD–the Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device–and it’s just been revealed at the “Artificial and Natural Space Debris” session of the AIAA Astrodynamics Specialists Conference.

GOLD is not much more than a football-field sized balloon (made of gossamer-thin but super-tough material, a little like solar sails) that is flown into orbit deflated in a suitcase-sized box and then fastened to a dead satellite. It’s then inflated to maximum size, and the huge bulk of the balloon massively increases the atmospheric drag that satellites experience up there in the void. … The drag acts to slow a satellite in its orbital path, and then simple orbital mechanics means the satellite descends into the atmosphere where the denser air heats it to the point it burns up.

Back to the news item on Science Daily for more details about the project and NASA’s partnership with a citizen science organization,

NanoSail-D orbited Earth for 240 days performing well beyond expectations and burned up during reentry to Earth’s atmosphere on Sept. 17 [2011].

NASA formed a partnership with to engage the amateur astronomy community to submit images of the orbiting NanoSail-D solar sail during the flight phase of the mission. NanoSail-D was a very elusive target to spot in the night sky — at times very bright and other times difficult to see at all. Many ground observations were made over the course of the mission. The imaging challenge concluded with NanoSail-D’s deorbit. Winners will be announced in early 2012.

A gallery of the NanoSail-D images is now available and here’s a sample of what you’ll find,

Moon-NanoSail Conjunction! Credit: Enzo De Bernardini, Buenos Aires, Argentina Jan. 27, 2011

Here’s De Bernardini’s description of his image,

I caught NanoSail-D crossing the vicinity of the waning moon in a one-second exposure. The satellite has low magnitude (i.e., it is dim), and so the image was enhanced considerably. Slight cloudiness present. The published orbital elements are accurate, the conjunction took place at exactly predicted time. Used a Canon EOS 300D camera at ISO-800, and 80 mm F/5 refractor telescope. Processed with PixInsight.

There’s a separate website for the NanoSail-D project which you can check out here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *