Scientists Develop Unique Orbital Cleaner

02.10.2019

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The “debris” threat to the work of active satellites is becoming increasingly critical. In the spring of this year, a $400-million Boeing satellite weighing more than 6.5 tonnes was destroyed as a result of a collision with debris. Scientists at Samara University have developed a unique gravitational effects system. The results of the study are published in Astra Astronautica magazine.

The geostationary orbit (GSO) is an area of outer space 36 thousand km away from the Earth, located strictly above the equator. According to scientists, there are currently about a thousand inactive space objects with a total mass of more than 2.5 thousand tonnes at the GSO.

The satellites launched to the GSO move around the planet with the angular velocity of its rotation around its own axis, which means they hang above a given point on the surface. Most communication satellites are located there.

The Department of Theoretical Mechanics of Samara University has developed an original solution to this problem. The published materials have been praised by the international expert community.

“Our model of a tug-collector proves a general possibility of solving the problem of space debris. A heavy satellite with low thrust engines, acting as a gravitational trap, is capable of capturing objects and eliminating them from the GSO,” Vladimir Aslanov, Head of the Department of Theoretical Mechanics at Samara University, said.

The effect of gravity at the height of the GSO is relatively weak; therefore rather heavy objects create an area of their own attraction, the so-called Hill sphere. The optimal effect will be achieved with a collector weighing about 100 tonnes. Scientists believe that small asteroids could be used in the future.

A working collector will go between the GSO and higher orbits. According to one of the model scenarios, the collected debris can be accumulated around the satellite, thereby increasing the useful mass of the collector and the force of gravity capture.

All stages of the orbital cleaner’s mission have been calculated under the project. According to Vladimir Aslanov, this development by Russian scientists is unique, despite the growing acuteness of the problem.

The project is being developed with the support of the Russian Science Foundation. Today, the research team is moving from physical modelling to specific engineering calculations.

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