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Start-Up Lands Grant to Clean-Up Space Debris

Dragsail illustration

Dragsail illustration (David Spencer, Purdue University)

10 July 2019. A company founded earlier this year is receiving a small-business grant from NASA for a technology to remove small satellites and other debris from space. The agency awarded Vestigo Aerospace LLC, a spin-off enterprise from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, $125,000 to demonstrate the feasibility of the company’s dragsail system for retrieving nanosatellites and other small objects from earth orbit.

Despite the popular idea of an infinite outer space, the amount of useful territory in low earth orbit is rapidly filling up. To a certain extent, NASA’s Small Satellite Technology program is responsible for the proliferation of small research systems developed by academic and commercial labs and launched in standardized CubeSat containers. A recent market research study forecasts up to 2,800 of these small devices will be launched over the next five years, while plans are proceeding for entire constellations of new satellites, numbering in the thousands, to deliver high-speed Internet service.

Vestigo Aerospace proposes launching a system to de-orbit or retrieve small objects from space. The device, called a dragsail is a pyramid-shaped passive collector that scoops up the small satellites, weighing up to 400 kilograms (882 lbs.). Dragsails would be deployed at the end of the small satellites’ missions, to take them out of earth orbit, rather than continuing to orbit for years or decades. The devices are designed to be carried in a CubeSat, then operate for 11 days to retrieve the target objects.

The project will look as well into the safe return of retrieved objects to earth. Purdue aeronautics and astronautics professor David Spencer, director of the university’s Space Flights Projects Laboratory and founder of Vestigo Aerospace, says in a university statement, “The team will also investigate the use of dragsails for targeted reentry of space objects, to reduce the uncertainty in atmospheric reentry corridors and debris impact zones.” The Purdue lab is partnering with Vestigo on the project.

The NASA grant, awarded under the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program, calls for Vestigo Aerospace to design a model and conduct tests to prove the concept of dragsails for small object retrieval in space. The tests need to show basic functionality of the dragsail model in the lab and that its components work together. If the researchers can prove the dragsail concept in this first phase, a follow-on project would develop a working prototype.

“Through the six-month study,” adds Spencer, “we will advance dragsail technology for the de-orbit of small satellites and launch vehicle stages. The safe disposal of space objects upon mission completion is necessary to preserve the utility of high-value orbits.”

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