There’s a lot of junk orbiting our planet, from tiny flecks of paint to defunct rocket stages. While solutions to remove pre-existing debris have been developed, a private space company in Germany has successfully tested a method to deorbit satellites at the end of their life to prevent them from becoming space debris in the first place.
The Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) braking sail was developed by High Performance Space Structure Systems as a way to deorbit satellites at the end of their mission. In a space-based test in December 2022 called “Show Me Your Wings,” ADEO was deployed from an ION Satellite Carrier built by private space company D-Orbit. ADEO successfully pushed the satellite carrier out of its orbit, sending it into the atmosphere to burn up.
“Show Me Your Wings” marks the final in-flight qualification test of ADEO as a proof-of-concept after tests began in 2018. The European Space Agency hopes ADEO will help prevent future decommissioned satellites from becoming orbiting space debris, which can pose a threat to space operations.
“We want to establish a zero debris policy, which means if you bring a spacecraft into orbit you have to remove it,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher in a press release.
ADEO is a 38-square-foot (3.5-square-meter) sail made up of an aluminum-coated polyamide membrane secured to four carbon-fibre reinforced arms that are positioned in an X-shape. The sail increases surface drag when deployed from a satellite, leading to a more rapidly decaying orbit. ADEO can also be scaled up or down depending on the size of the satellite it’s attached to. The largest version could reach 1,076-square-feet (100-square-meter) with the smallest sail being 37-square-foot (3.5-square-meter).
NASA estimates that 27,000 pieces of space debris are orbiting Earth, most of which are larger than a softball and traveling at speeds around 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour). While ESA has previously announced plans to remove pre-existing space debris in the form of decommissioned satellites, ADEO is an attempt at preventing satellites from ever becoming debris in the first place.