Space Junk: How to Destroy a Satellite After Its Retirement from Orbit

First Posted: Sep 01, 2015 11:25 AM EDT

Space junk is a growing issue as debris piles up in Earth's orbit. Now, researchers have developed a new method to eliminate artificial satellites in Highly Elliptical Orbits when they finish their mission.

Space debris can be a major risk to satellites. Pieces of junk can wind up slamming into instruments and impairing equipment. That's why cleaning up Earth's orbit has become a new focus for space agencies.

Satellites in Highly Elliptical Orbits (HEO) are very eccentric. In fact, the farthest position can be as much as ten times farther from Earth than the nearest. Their evolution is also strongly influenced by the gravitational effects of the Earth's equatorial bulge and the pull from the moon and the sun.

These effects can cause satellites placed in this type of orbit to cross two "protected" regions, known as Low Earth Orbits (LEO) and Geostationary Orbits (GEO), during long periods of time. This can increase the risk of collisions with the numerous satellites operating in them.

"Our research has focused on taking advantage of the same gravitational effects that affect HEO orbits so as to reduce the cost of eliminating the satellites which operate in them once they have reached retirement," said Roberto Armellin, co-author of the new study, in a news release. "Some propellant needs to be reserved in order to perform the satellite disposal maneuvers, so it cannot be used to extent the mission duration, which makes it more expensive, so we have developed a methodology aimed at reducing the amount of propellant needed, and hence the associated cost."

The researchers used their own orbit propagator software to propagate the evolution of an orbiter during 100 years in such a few seconds. This program allows for finding the best conditions and instants for satellites to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, where they can safely disintegrate with minimum risk for other satellites.

The findings could be important for minimizes space junk after satellites are decommissioned. This is crucial when it comes to new ESA regulations about space debris.

The findings are published in the journal Advances in Space Research.

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