China began an effort to manage the space junk orbiting Earth by attaching a giant sail to the rocket it launched last month, which would facilitate its reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
On June 24, 2022, the China National Space Administration launched the Long March 2D rocket and successfully placed three Yaogan 35 series satellites into orbit.
Attached to the rocket’s payload adapter, the 269-square-foot deorbiting sail created by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) was successfully unfolded on June 26 to help deorbit the device within two years.
The deorbiting measure marked the first time that such an experiment was ever performed on a rocket.
The sail enables the 661-pound device to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere faster, according to SAST. With its wide surface area, drag sails help speed up the reentry process of rockets or satellites by increasing the effects of atmospheric friction. Made with extra-thin materials less than a tenth of a hair’s diameter, the sail system can easily be installed onboard any spacecraft.
Keeping the objects out of orbit sooner helps reduce the risk of collisions with other orbiting objects that eventually create more pieces of debris in space. Without such deorbiting measures, a small satellite can remain in orbit for 120 years and even longer after its purpose has ended.
The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, which tracks and maintains catalogs of space junk, notes that there are about 31,650 debris objects currently orbiting Earth.
According to NASA’s estimates, there are “half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches) or larger, and approximately 100 million pieces of debris about .04 inches and larger” currently orbiting Earth.
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