An European consortium including universities from Spain, Italy and Germany has received €2.5 million from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to develop a way to deorbit space debris. The consortium — called E.T.PACK — includes the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain), the University of Padova (Italy), the Technical University of Dresden (Germany), the Spanish company SENER Aeroespacial and the German start-up Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA).
It’s extremely expensive to remove satellites once they’re no longer operational. This has caused an incredible accumulation of space debris in Low Earth orbit. This debris is fast becoming a serious problem, especially when it collides with other objects in space and generates a cloud of dangerous shrapnels which may affect operational satellites.
The E.T. PACK-Fly was developed to deorbit these satellites. The aim is to decrease their altitude until they can be destroyed during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike conventional propulsion systems, the E.T.PACK-Fly uses an electrodynamic space tether that does not require propellant. This involves a very thin tape made out of aluminium which uses the geomagnetic field to create an electric current. In turn, this forces the satellite to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is destroyed. It can also be used to stabilise satellites and control their orbit to avoid collisions with other objects. Crucially, this tether doesn’t need fuel, and it’s small and light.
Funded by the European Innovation Council (EIC), the project aims to launch into orbit the E.T PACK-Fly by 2025. A prototype of the deorbit device has already been developed and built in the framework of E.T.PACK. “We are very grateful to the EIC for the trust it has placed in us and its commitment to the development of technologies that allow a sustainable use of the space environment,” said Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, Associate Professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and coordinator of the E.T. PACK and E.T. PACK-Fly projects. “It is important to invest in disruptive technologies that can mitigate the proliferation of space debris while generating wealth and new business opportunities.”
“This project gives us the opportunity to build and qualify for space through a complete series of tests, a light, compact, and completely autonomous platform for deorbiting the final stages of launchers. The E.T.PACK-Fly platform is expected to be launched in 2025 with RFA to demonstrate its proficiency and pave the way for commercial exploitation of deorbiting technology,” said Lorenzo Tarabini, director of the E.T.PACK-Fly project at SENER Aeroespacial.
The team involved in this work is delighted to continue with the project and take it to the next level. They believe the removal of space debris is one of the most critical challenges in space, and it’s even better if it can be done with a sustainable solution like E.T.PACK.