This drag sail could prevent spacecraft from turning into long-term orbiting junk. We spoke to its inventors ahead of launch

Gadget due to be tested this week

Video Space-flight researchers are ready to test a prototype drag sail that could one day be used to prevent spacecraft turning into hazardous junk stuck for years in Earth's orbit.

Here's the gist: academics at Purdue University in the US have built a device they called Spinnaker3 that will be attached to a rocket developed by startup Firefly Aerospace and launched into space this week. When the upper stage of the rocket is spent, Spinnaker3 will unfurl its 18-square-metre drag sail, which is made out of fluorinated polyimide.

Drone view of the Spinnaker3 drag sail prototype, fully deploying in the atrium of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue University. Pictured from left to right: Anthony Cofer, David Spencer, Arly Black

Drone view of the drag sail prototype, fully deployed in the atrium of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue. From left, Anthony Cofer, David Spencer, and Arly Black. Source: Purdue University
Click to enlarge

The sail will be held taut by three-metre-long carbon-fiber poles, which is the 3 in Spinnaker3. It's not the first drag sail in space, though crucially, it is big enough to slow the rocket stage by increasing its atmospheric drag. The rocket hardware is expected to deorbit and burn up in Earth's atmosphere in 15 days rather than 25 without the drag sail.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but hear us out: slowing down an orbiting spacecraft decreases the time taken for it to deorbit and burn up. It's possible drag sails could be used to destroy future spacecraft over far shorter periods of time, which reduces the chance of them whacking into other craft or debris and introducing more junk around our planet.

“The drag sail works by increasing the area of the spacecraft and therefore increasing the surface over which drag can act,” Arly Black, a PhD student at Purdue working on Spinnaker3, told The Register.

“Think of it like a parachute: a parachute simply increases your drag area. As such, any increase in the area-to-mass ratio of the body will act to slow down the spacecraft and bring it closer to Earth.”

Purdue PhD candidate Arly Black tests sail deployment for Spinnaker3. Credit: Purdue University/David Spencer

Arly Black, front, tests Spinnaker3's sail deployment with lab engineer Anthony Cofer. Credit: Purdue University/David Spencer
Click for full image

This tech could be fitted to satellites and other craft so that when they are decommissioned or dying, they can be slowed so that they deorbit in a more reasonable time frame, reducing clutter. We imagine it could be a backup method for deorbiting, or an alternative to using onboard engines.

“Despite popular belief, there is not a pure vacuum around Earth, and the atmosphere has some density to it," Black continued. "While small, this density is enough to gradually slow down a spacecraft in its orbit, causing it to eventually spiral towards Earth.

“The rate of decay is dependent on a number of factors, including the altitude of the orbit and the area-to-mass ratio of the spacecraft. Density decreases as altitude increases, so the higher the orbit, the longer it takes for a spacecraft to deorbit.

"At lower altitudes, deorbit could occur in days, while at higher altitudes it could take tens to hundreds of years. At the rate that launches are occurring, letting spacecraft deorbit on their own over long periods of time will soon no longer be a viable option.”

Here’s a video illustrating how the drag sail works:

Youtube Video

At 15 kilograms, the drag sail doesn’t add too much to the launch in terms of payload mass. Dave Spencer, an adjunct associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue and founder of Vestigo Aerospace LLC, a startup producing drag sails for various sizes of space vehicles, told us he hopes to eventually bring down the mass to eight kilograms in the final, commercial version.

“Spinnaker3 is designed to operate even if the host spacecraft is inactive,” he told El Reg.

"This provides a failsafe approach to ensure that the space vehicle will deorbit in a timely fashion even if it fails prematurely."

It’s the first time the researchers have tested their invention on an actual rocket fuselage. They will watch Spinnaker3 in action via a camera placed on the upper stage of the Firefly rocket and will track how long it takes for the vehicle to deorbit from data provided by US Space Command.

The Firefly rocket is expected to launch on September 2 from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California between 1800 and 2200 PT (0100 to 0500 UTC, September 3.) You can watch a livestream of the event here. ®

Updated to add

Unfortunately, the rocket carrying Spinnaker3 exploded at launch, destroying the experimental sail.

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Everything you wanted to know about modern network congestion control but were perhaps too afraid to ask

    In which a little unfairness can be quite beneficial

    Systems Approach It’s hard not to be amazed by the amount of active research on congestion control over the past 30-plus years. From theory to practice, and with more than its fair share of flame wars, the question of how to manage congestion in the network is a technical challenge that resists an optimal solution while offering countless options for incremental improvement.

    This seems like a good time to take stock of where we are, and ask ourselves what might happen next.

    Congestion control is fundamentally an issue of resource allocation — trying to meet the competing demands that applications have for resources (in a network, these are primarily link bandwidth and router buffers), which ultimately reduces to deciding when to say no and to whom. The best framing of the problem I know traces back to a paper [PDF] by Frank Kelly in 1997, when he characterized congestion control as “a distributed algorithm to share network resources among competing sources, where the goal is to choose source rate so as to maximize aggregate source utility subject to capacity constraints.”

    Continue reading
  • How business makes streaming faster and cheaper with CDN and HESP support

    Ensure a high video streaming transmission rate

    Paid Post Here is everything about how the HESP integration helps CDN and the streaming platform by G-Core Labs ensure a high video streaming transmission rate for e-sports and gaming, efficient scalability for e-learning and telemedicine and high quality and minimum latencies for online streams, media and TV broadcasters.

    HESP (High Efficiency Stream Protocol) is a brand new adaptive video streaming protocol. It allows delivery of content with latencies of up to 2 seconds without compromising video quality and broadcasting stability. Unlike comparable solutions, this protocol requires less bandwidth for streaming, which allows businesses to save a lot of money on delivery of content to a large audience.

    Since HESP is based on HTTP, it is suitable for video transmission over CDNs. G-Core Labs was among the world’s first companies to have embedded this protocol in its CDN. With 120 points of presence across 5 continents and over 6,000 peer-to-peer partners, this allows a service provider to deliver videos to millions of viewers, to any devices, anywhere in the world without compromising even 8K video quality. And all this comes at a minimum streaming cost.

    Continue reading
  • Cisco deprecates Microsoft management integrations for UCS servers

    Working on Azure integration – but not there yet

    Cisco has deprecated support for some third-party management integrations for its UCS servers, and emerged unable to play nice with Microsoft's most recent offerings.

    Late last week the server contender slipped out an end-of-life notice [PDF] for integrations with Microsoft System Center's Configuration Manager, Operations Manager, and Virtual Machine Manager. Support for plugins to VMware vCenter Orchestrator and vRealize Orchestrator have also been taken out behind an empty rack with a shotgun.

    The Register inquired about the deprecations, and has good news and bad news.

    Continue reading
  • Protonmail celebrates Swiss court victory exempting it from telco data retention laws

    Doesn't stop local courts' surveillance orders, though

    Encrypted email provider Protonmail has hailed a recent Swiss legal ruling as a "victory for privacy," after winning a lawsuit that sees it exempted from data retention laws in the mountainous realm.

    Referring to a previous ruling that exempted instant messaging services from data capture and storage laws, the Protonmail team said this week: "Together, these two rulings are a victory for privacy in Switzerland as many Swiss companies are now exempted from handing over certain user information in response to Swiss legal orders."

    Switzerland's Federal Administrative Court ruled on October 22 that email providers in Switzerland are not considered telecommunications providers under Swiss law, thereby removing them from the scope of data retention requirements imposed on telcos.

    Continue reading
  • Japan picks AWS and Google for first gov cloud push

    Local players passed over for Digital Agency’s first project

    Japan's Digital Agency has picked Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud for its first big reform push.

    The Agency started operations in September 2021, years after efforts like the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) or Australia's Digital Transformation Agency (DTA). The body was a signature reform initiated by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who spent his year-long stint in the top job trying to curb Japan's reliance on paper documents, manual processes, and faxes. Japan's many government agencies also operated their websites independently of each other, most with their own design and interface.

    The new Agency therefore has a remit to "cut across all ministries" and "provide services that are driven not toward ministries, agency, laws, or systems, but toward users and to improve user-experience".

    Continue reading
  • Singaporean minister touts internet 'kill switch' that finds kids reading net nasties and cuts 'em off ASAP

    Fancies a real-time crowdsourced content rating scheme too

    A Minister in the Singapore government has suggested the creation of an internet kill switch that would prevent minors from reading questionable material online – perhaps using ratings of content created in real time by crowdsourced contributors.

    "The post-COVID world will bring new challenges globally, including to us in the security arena," said Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at a Tuesday ceremony to award the city-state's 2021 Defense Technology Prize.

    "For operations, the SAF (Singapore Armed Force) has to expand its capabilities in the digital domain. Whether for administrative or operational purposes, I think that we will need to leverage technology to the maximum," he declared.

    Continue reading
  • China Telecom booted out of USA as Feds worry it could disrupt or spy on local networks

    FCC urges more action against Huawei and DJI, too

    The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has terminated China Telecom's authority to provide communications services in the USA.

    In its announcement of the termination, the government agency explained the decision is necessary because the national security environment has changed in the years since 2002. That was when China Telecom was first allowed to operate in the USA.

    The FCC now believes – partly based on classified advice from national security agencies – that China Telecom can "access, store, disrupt, and/or misroute US communications, which in turn allow them to engage in espionage and other harmful activities against the United States." And because China Telecom is state-controlled, China's government can compel the carrier to act as it sees fit, without judicial review or oversight.

    Continue reading
  • Qualcomm gets news of modest Snapdragons out of the way before next month's big chip launch

    A little more oomph coming for cheaper smartphones

    Budget smartphones these days do OK with 5G though lack performance in other areas, and so Qualcomm has promised some system-on-chips to give these modest devices some more oomph.

    The processors, announced on Tuesday for entry and mid-range 5G smartphones, also clears the deck for big chip announcements Qualcomm is expected to make at its Snapdragon Tech Summit starting at the end of next month.

    The 6nm Snapdragon 695 5G, unveiled this week, is a successor to the 8nm 690 5G used in the OnePlus Nord N10 5G, which is priced under $300, and various other handhelds.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021