First satellite able re-enter the atmosphere in a controlled way just launched

D-Sat is the first satellite in history that will end its mission by re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in a safe and controlled way, burning up instead of becoming new debris. The satellite, which was launched on Friday, 23 June 2017, used a decommissioning and re entry device created by the EU-funded D3 project.

Space debris is a growing problem. Earth observation, weather forecast, global navigation, disaster prevention, high-precision farming, and self-driving cars are all applications that require space-based assets. Our dependence on these technologies is increasing, as is the number of man-made objects, no longer in service, in orbit around Earth. Out of the, approximately, 6 000 satellites launched since the beginning of the space age began, only 1 300 are operational.

Defunct objects such as decommissioned satellites, the upper stages of rockets, and other objects released during a space mission all clutter the immediate space around our planet. According to NASA, there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris ranging in size between 1 cm (0,4 inches) and 10 cm (4 inches) traveling around Earth, and this number is likely to increase if we keep leaving nonfunctioning satellites in orbit. Each represents a collision hazard.

D ORBIT, the coordinator of the EU-funded D3 (Smart propulsive device for controlled satellite decommissioning and reentry) project is harnessing work done by the D3 project to aid the decommissioning manoeuvre of its small test satellite, the D-Sat. D-Sat will run three tests and the dedicated propulsive device created by D3 will then remove it from orbit in a quick, direct, and controlled way at the end of its mission.

The project explains, ‘Thanks to D-Orbit’s patented D3 independent propulsive system onboard, D-Sat will perform a precise decommissioning maneuver that will cause the satellite to re-enter Earth’s orbit in just 30 minutes from the moment of ignition, even if the main systems become unresponsive.’ The device may be on a small satellite for testing purposes but D-Orbit makes it clear that the same technology can be scaled up to decommission much larger spacecraft in any orbit. The technology, they explain, offers a safe and cost effective way of mitigating the space debris issue while enabling satellite operators to use all propellant onboard to perform their missions. The control offered by D3 enables the re entry to be maneuvered accurately, ‘(…) we can target a precise zone above the ocean, ensuring that possible micro-fragment will be disposed out of harm’s way,’ says D-Orbit.

But the satellite will not just be testing the decommissioning phase, it will also perform three experiments:

SatAlert, is an in-orbit validation of the Multiple Alert Message Encapsulation (MAMES) protocol, defined by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). MAMES is an extensible multiple alert message encapsulation protocol for transporting alert messages of different formats over satellite links. D-Sat will collect MAMES emergency messages sent from a ground station, store them onboard, and re-broadcast them to national public safety entities upon receiving a trigger command. This experiment will validate a typical emergency scenario where civil defense agencies need a means to broadcast instructions in areas affected by natural disasters when the ground telecommunication infrastructures have been damaged.

DeCas, (Debris Collision Alerting System), activates itself during re entry to broadcast its location and the debris footprint dynamics to civil protection agencies. In a real-world scenario, this information would be processed on ground and then transmitted in real-time to airplanes flying over that zone through the Air Traffic Control Center, and to the populated areas below through national public safety agencies.

Atmosphere Analyzer is a data collection experiment aimed at collecting in-situ atmospheric data from the lower ionosphere during the re-entry maneuver.

For more information, please see:
Project website Instrument June newsletter (Project Kickstarter page)
Project videos

last modification: 2017-07-05

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