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First European System for Active Debris Removal with Nets

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European SMEs ready to clean up outer space

EU-funded SMEs have validated the first European system for removing space debris with nets, thanks in part to SME Instrument funding.

Space

The ADR1EN project was not only able to develop and test in lab-simulated operational conditions a scaled-up demonstrator of the innovation, but also develop the necessary business and commercialisation plans to reach the market and boost growth. “Thanks to the ADR1EN project and our inclusion in the European Space Agency (ESA) list of companies recognised for their know-how in space debris removal, we look forward to taking part in the first European mission to remove a dead satellite, e.Deorbit programmed for 2023,” says project coordinator Umberto Battista from Stam, Italy. “While robotic arms and harpoons are alternative technologies for space debris capturing, the great advantage of nets is that they are lightweight and safer as they can be launched from far away.” Safer space The innovation works by trapping debris in a net, which can then be towed away by a chaser spaceship by a tether connected to the net. The debris is then burnt in the atmosphere or moved out of harm’s way (at a safer orbit for example). The ADR1EN project brought together three highly specialised SMEs (Stam, as well as Polish firms SKA Polska and OptiNav), which were keen to take this system to the next level. Stam, the coordinator of the project, was in charge of up-scaling the net ejector and developing the business plan; SKA Polska was responsible for the development of the net simulator and the capturing net; while OptiNav was in charge of developing the test rig and performing the full scale free fall tests on the ground. Thales Alenia Space Italy provided a thermal-vacuum chamber and contamination test facilities, while Franco Malerba, the first Italian astronaut, acted as the project’s business coach. “We had already developed at the small scale a debris capturing system to protect space infrastructures like satellites from the increasing amount of debris orbiting Earth,” explains Battista. “Having validated the system at zero-gravity, we identified the SME Instrument as an ideal funding mechanism to support the financial risks involved in addressing the remaining technical and non-technical barriers to market entry.” A global market Following successful validation of the technology through the ADR1EN project, Battista believes there is real market potential. While around 7 200 satellites have been launched, only around 1 400 are still in operation. The rest are derelict and beginning to fragment. In fact, an estimated 750 000 pieces larger than 1 cm are now orbiting the earth, presenting a clear and present danger to expensive satellite equipment and space stations. “The space environment might not be sustainable if no mitigation or remediation efforts are undertaken,” says Battista. “Debris generation is steadily increasing, and with each collision generating even more space debris, the likelihood of further collisions is enhanced. If we launched ten space debris removal missions a year, then it would still take about two centuries to restore the space environment to a stable level.” This is a truly global issue. More than 50 countries operate at least one satellite, while space infrastructures such as the International Space Station, the Galileo satellite constellation and the Copernicus Earth-observation satellites represent billions of euros in investment. “We think that the ADR1EN system can help address the risk of collision by directly reducing the number of debris,” says Battista. “This will allow satellite operators to avoid extra expenses due to debris collisions and extend the life span of the equipment. There is also the possibility of exploring more down-to-Earth applications for the net technology, such as neutralising offensive drones.”

Keywords

ADR1EN, satellite, debris, space, drones, Copernicus, Earth, ESA, Stam, SKA Polska, OptiNav

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