Spanish researchers have developed a new method that would allow removing satellites from space at the end of their designed lifetime.
The method was designed to deal with satellites in the so called highly elliptical orbits (HEO) and could help tackle the worsening problem of space debris.
The method would allow the defunct satellites to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn much faster thus reducing the risks the out of control satellites pose to other spacecraft.
"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, one of the researchers developing the new method at the University of La Rioja.
"Some propellant needs to be reserved in order to perform the satellite disposal manoeuvres, so it cannot be used to extend the mission duration, which makes it more expensive."
However, the new method enables performing the desired disposal with a minimal amount of fuel.
The researchers cooperated with the European Space Agency (Esa) on the study and used Esa’s Integral mission to model the process.
"The simulation results suggest designing manoeuvres so that the INTEGRAL satellite re-enters into the Earth's atmosphere and subsequently disintegrates during the period of time from September 2028 to July 2029 in a controlled way and with a cost which is reduced by the amplification of natural gravitational effects", said Armellin.
This year, Esa has performed four manoeuvres that will lead to the elimination of Integral in line with a policy that requires space agencies to stop excessively cluttering the Earth’s orbit by leaving spacecraft on its own at the end of their lifetime.
Esa’s regulations require satellites from highly elliptical orbits to cross the low Earth orbit protected region and re-enter the atmosphere in 25 years.
The study of the GRUCACI team also proves that it is possible to select some latitude regions such that the satellite re-entry takes place with minimum risk to cause damage to populated areas of the Earth.