NASA Funds Ultra-Thin Spacecraft for Clearing Space Junk

This site may earn affiliate commissions from the links on this page. Terms of use.

Humanity has been launching probes, spacecraft, and even entire space stations into orbit around the Earth for decades, and we’re getting pretty good at it. We’re not so good at getting objects back down to Earth, though. That’s becoming a problem as more and more space junk piles up in orbit, posing a danger to future missions. Various solutions to the problem have been suggested, but The Aerospace Corporation says its Brane Craft will be able to deal with space debris efficiently. It’s an ultra-thin flexible sheet that envelopes debris and drags it back into the atmosphere.

The Brane Craft was originally funded by NASA in 2016 as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. This allowed The Aerospace Corporation to pursue the design theory behind the craft, and now it’s time to move forward. The Brane Craft has received phase 2 funding under the NIAC program, which enables The Aerospace Corporation to begin building and testing the spacecraft’s systems in a laboratory setting.

The Aerospace Corporation’s approach to ridding space of unwanted debris is pretty out there, but that’s exactly what NIAC is about — funding wild ideas that could make a big impact if they pan out. The Brane Craft is essentially a 2-dimensional design, with a total thickness of just 10 micrometers. With a total surface area of about a square yard, it would make a tempting target for tiny bits of space debris or micrometeorite. Something as small as 5 micrometers could blast through the main structural sheet if it were struck, so The Aerospace Corporation is working to make it as durable as possible.

Redundancy is key to the Brane Craft. The solar cells are spread across the surface and designed to work independently if one of them is damaged or destroyed. Likewise, the craft has multiple microprocessors and electronics packages spread across the surface. If one of those is damaged, the others can pick up the slack.

Even the propellant, which is stored in a thin layer between the two outer sheets, is split up into multiple segmented tanks that can survive an impact. This tiny bit of propellant will be used by the Brane Craft to rendezvous with a piece of space junk, wrap the flexible frame around it, then slowly deorbit itself along with the junk. The limited fuel means the Brane Craft would be limited to capturing objects with a mass of 0.9 kilograms (2 pounds) or less.

So, why go to all the trouble of making the Brane Craft so thin? After all, more robust spacecraft are easy to design. It goes back to the incredible volume of debris in orbit — at least half a million that are the size of a screw or larger. To even make a dent, we’d need a lot of deorbiting mechanisms, and the Brane Craft is incredibly compact and light. That makes it feasible to launch many of them on a single rocket.

NIAC provides two years of funding for laboratory demonstrations of the technology. If NASA is happy with the progress, these ultra-thin spacecraft could be operating several years later.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

ExtremeTechExtremeTech

Leave a Reply