How to catch a derelict satellite
Decades of launches have left Earth surrounded by a halo of space junk: more than 17 000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup, which threaten working missions with catastrophic collision. Even a 1 cm nut could hit with the force of a hand grenade. Such items are also time bombs:they risk exploding due to leftover fuel or partially charged batteries heated up by orbital sunlight.
The resulting debris clouds would make these vital orbits much more hazardous and expensive to use, and follow-on collisions may eventually trigger a chain reaction of breakups. The only way to control the debris population across key low orbits is to remove large items such as derelict satellites and launcher upper stages.
e.DeOrbit is designed to target debris items in well-trafficked polar orbits, between 800 km to 1000 km altitude. At around 1600 kg, e.DeOrbit will be launched on ESA’s Vega rocket.
The first technical challenge the mission will face is to capture a massive, drifting object left in an uncertain state, which may well be tumbling rapidly. Sophisticated imaging sensors and advanced autonomous control will be essential, first to assess its condition and then approach it.
Making rendezvous and then steady stationkeeping with the target is hard enough but then comes the really difficult part: how to secure it safely ahead of steering the combined satellite and salvage craft down for a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere?