Airbus to test sat-stabilizing 'Detumbler' to simplify astro-garbage disposal
Dead spin is a dangerous orbital dance that can be stopped with magnets and friction, apparently
Airbus has developed a completely mechanical solution to help make space junk easier to capture – using magnets, the Earth's magnetic field and a bit of friction.
Dubbed the Detumbler, the device was developed in 2021 by Airbus alongside the French Space Agency (CNES). One of the minuscule 100-gram devices launched into orbit last weekend aboard SpaceX's Transporter-9 "rideshare" mission for small payloads. Airbus advised the Detumbler will be tested in early 2024 on a nanosatellite from Exotrail.
Decommissioned satellites often start tumbling or spinning, which makes them hard to catch and move out of harm's way.
Hence the need for the Detumbler, which Airbus and CNES describe [PDF] as a "passive magnetic damping device [that can be] attached to a satellite's structure." Once affixed, the device "dissipates the kinetic energy and angular momentum thanks to eddy currents resulting from differential angular rates between the satellite and the Earth's magnetic field, eventually stopping the tumbling motion."
The devices are completely mechanical and require no power, an Airbus spokesperson told The Register.
Airbus and CNES researchers note in their paper that the Detumbler, which has a rotor diameter of just five centimeters (1.9 inches), should be capable of eliminating tumbling motion in medium-to-large satellites "within just a few weeks, while also preventing self-tumbling." The team notes that this is "a game-changer for active debris removal."
The device is designed to handle satellites with a mass of up to 1.5 tonnes "covering more than 95 percent of the current distribution of satellites in flight."
"The demonstration satellite is a 8U cubesat. However, we have the capability to adapt the sizing of the detumbler according to inertia and the orbit of the satellite to detumble. This sizing only concerns the size of the magnets of the rotor, the size/weight of rotor and stator remains the same whatever the satellite," an Airbus spokesperson told The Register.
It's unclear whether a Detumbler could simply be slapped onto an existing satellite, or whether it would have to be part of one at launch – Airbus didn't answer all our questions before publication. The device is mentioned as having an application during normal satellite operations, when it would "act like a compass following the magnetic field" to keep satellites oriented.
Of course, the Detumbler's effectiveness hasn't been proven yet, which is why Airbus has partnered with EnduroSat and Exotrail to test one in orbit early next year. EnduroSat revealed it has received signals from all five of the satellites it sent up with Transporter-9.
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"More than 100 million pieces of human-made space debris are circling our planet … It has become critical to solve this problem," an Airbus representative explained in a video posted to Instagram that discusses the Detumbler.
Case in point: a 112kg rocket part orbiting Earth for a decade, which has been targeted for a future cleanup mission, was struck by another object in August 2023, luckily doing minimal damage.
Swarms of satellites have been launched in recent years, forcing manufacturers like Amazon to include countermeasures to help them dodge orbiting garbage – the smallest chunks of which can still do serious damage. ®