In a remarkable accomplishment, a prototype satellite named SBUDNIC, designed to test an innovative deployable drag sail for satellite de-orbiting, has achieved its mission. The satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere earlier this month after spending a mere 445 days in orbit.
Conceived by students from Brown University in Rhode Island, SBUDNIC – playfully named as a nod to “Sputnik” – was constructed using commercially available components, showcasing the potential of affordable ingenuity. Its compact CubeSat design featured a sophisticated drag sail made from Kapton polyimide film, with delicate aluminum tubing for support. The sail gracefully unfurled upon entering orbit, an elegant ballet of technology.
The primary objective of this pioneering project was to propose a feasible solution to the escalating issue of overcrowding in low Earth orbit due to retired satellites reaching the end of their operational life. If proven effective, this innovation could reshape the way future satellites are designed, incorporating mechanisms for safer and more efficient de-orbiting.
SBUDNIC joined the payload of the SpaceX Transporter 5 launch in May of the previous year, alongside a cluster of other small satellites. Once in space, its sail expanded elegantly, reminiscent of an opening umbrella, at an altitude of roughly 520 kilometers above Earth’s surface. This strategic deployment initiated drag, causing the satellite’s orbit to gradually decay.
Remarkably, the project demonstrated significant success. Tracking data collected from the US Space Command indicated that SBUDNIC’s altitude was approximately 470 kilometers in early March, while other satellites of similar size launched within the same mission remained at altitudes exceeding 500 kilometers.
The CubeSat’s orbital decay accelerated as it descended, ultimately plummeting to a mere 146 kilometers on August 8. Shortly thereafter, the satellite met its fiery demise as it gracefully disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Initial projections anticipated the drag device to reduce SBUDNIC’s orbital lifespan from over two decades to as few as 6.5 years. However, reality surpassed expectations, concluding the satellite’s journey within a mere 15 months.
Selia Jindal, one of the project’s leaders who recently graduated from Brown University, expressed, “We were attempting to demonstrate that there are cost-effective methods of de-orbiting space debris after a satellite’s operational life ends. This demonstrates our success in achieving that goal. We successfully managed to de-orbit our satellite, freeing up space in Earth’s orbit.”
The brilliance of this sail concept lies in its cost-effectiveness. In contrast to more elaborate ideas involving space tow trucks or nets, SBUDNIC’s $30 drag device offers an elegant solution to satellite sustainability. Dheraj Ganjikunta, the lead program manager for SBUDNIC, explained its significance: “Instead of addressing space debris after it becomes problematic, we offer a $30 drag device that can be easily integrated into satellites, drastically reducing their time in space.”
While this innovation doesn’t tackle existing space debris, it establishes a compelling precedent for the future design of satellites. Each stride in innovation, even in its infancy, propels humanity closer to a cleaner and more sustainable outer space environment.