A tethered cubesat is projected to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within six weeks whereas an untethered one could take up to nine years.
WASHINGTON — Millennium Space Systems later this year will launch an experiment intended to show that a small satellite with a deployable tether can safely deorbit in a matter of weeks.
The company announced on July 16 it has built and qualified a spacecraft for the experiment dubbed DragRacer. The spacecraft has two identical cubesats that will be ejected simultaneously in low Earth orbit. One will host a tether and other will not.
Millennium predicts that the tethered cubesat will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within six weeks whereas the untethered one could take up to nine years.
Stan Dubyn, founder and CEO of Millennium Space Systems, told SpaceNews that the company is interested in possibly commercializing this technology. He said the DragRacer experiment was “conceived to benefit the entire space community to help address and alleviate the growing orbital debris problem.”
The cubesats will be ready to be integrated into a spacecraft in September. TriSept Corp, the mission launch service provider, will do the integration work at Millennium’s facility in El Segundo, California, and ship the spacecraft to New Zealand where it will be mated with a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.
TriSept CEO Rob Spicer told SpaceNews that the company booked the launch on Rocket Lab’s Electron as part of a rideshare mission that is scheduled to fly later this year.
A few days into the mission, one of the satellites will autonomously deploy a 230-foot-long Terminator Tape tether provided by Tethers Unlimited. The untethered satellite will be allowed to naturally decay. Millennium will use radar to track them and collect data.
“The space community understands tether systems can expedite reentry, but this is our first opportunity to truly quantify performance,” Robert Hoyt, founder and CEO of Tethers Unlimited, said in a statement.
Dubyn said this experiment will show that deorbiting can be done at low cost and without adding mass, volume and complex propulsion systems to a satellite.
Depending on the result of the experiment, he said, Millennium would consider how to move forward. “We would either use the Terminator Tape as a primary means to deorbit from LEO or augment the tether with a small propulsion systems if a more targeted splashdown point is needed.”
Spicer, of TriSept, said this experiment is significant because it will demonstrate that there are options available to deorbit satellites that are relatively easy to implement.
The tape tether is simple and less intrusive than other technologies, said Spicer. “We think it will work based on our analysis.” But it’s one of several alternatives being offered by the industry. “There are a number of angles being addressed,” said Spicer. “We want to help them be successful.”