China tests tow sails to remove space debris

This kite-like space sail will help launch a rocket component from orbit within two years.

This kite-like space sail will help launch a rocket component from orbit within two years.
picture: Shanghai Academy of Space Technology

Eengineers in China have successfully used an ultra-thin sail attached to a rocket part to speed up its departure from low Earth orbit and reduce the crowd space junk floating aimlessly over our planet.

The 25 square meter sail unfurled after launch from a Long March 2D rocket on June 24. Although the mission was not previously announced, the Shanghai Academy of Spacecraft Technology (SAST) announced A few days later that the tow sail had been deployed successfully to assist in deorbiting the missile component that won’t happen in the next two years or so.

When rolled up, the kite has the shape sail increases the atmospheric drag counteracts this object to which it is attached thereby accelerated orbital decay. The rocket component will then meet its fate much sooner, deorbiting and burning up on its way down in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a potential low-cost solution too the growing problem of space debris.

The recently introduced tow sail is made of super-thin material, about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. The component to which it is currently attached, the rocket’s upper stage payload adapter, weighs about 300 kilograms and orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 305 miles (491 kilometers), according to SAST. The rocket is expected to be dragged down to lower altitudes with increased friction due to the sail and reenter Earth’s atmosphere in about two years.

China has been a bit reckless lately while deorbiting his missiles. In April, debris likely caused by a Chinese missile that disintegrated on re-entry fell on a western village in India. Also in May 2021, a The Chinese missile Long March 5B crashed into the Indian Ocean after an uncontrolled re-entry earth atmosphere. A year earlier, in May 2020, another incoming Long March 5B rocket caused Debris falling on two villages in Ivory Coast, damaging people’s homes.

The tow sail will help remove the rocket from Earth orbit sooner than it would have done alone, but it’s not clear if China will be responsible for where parts of the rocket could fall to avoid populated areas.

It is hoped that the new technology will help clean up space debris in orbit. The Department of Defense global space surveillance network is currently tracking more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris and many other smaller pieces in the near-Earth environment. according to to NASA. Ideally, as countries continue to expand their space programs, they will also find a way to not only get off their spacecraft faster, but also less damagingly.

More: The coolest images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.