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Space Mission Testing Sail to Return Launch Vehicles

Drag sail time lapse

Time-lapse image of drag sail deploying (Erin Easterling, Purdue University)

21 Aug. 2020. A space mission in November will test a device that works like a sail to bring back launch vehicles faster, designed by university aerospace lab and start-up company. Spinnaker3 is a project of Purdue University’s Space Flight Projects Laboratory in West Lafayette, Indiana and the company Vestigo Aerospace LLC, founded by a faculty member from the lab.

Spinnaker3 helps solve two continuing problems in the space flight industry, the safe return of launch vehicles and reducing the amount of objects orbiting the earth after their missions. The system works like a drag sail to decelerate the object, in this case the launch vehicle, to deorbit, or take it out of orbit and begin its controlled return to earth. The Space Flight Projects Lab says deorbiting launch vehicles today requires fuel, which can be saved with a device like Spinnaker3, and also reduce the size of the launch vehicle.

The Spinnaker3 team is led by David Spencer, an adjunct professor in the Space Flight Projects Lab and mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for returning samples from the surface of Mars. Spencer founded in 2019 Vestigo Aerospace, now developing the Spinnaker3 with the Space Flight Projects Lab.

Earlier this year, NASA awarded Vestigo and the lab a $748,000 grant from its Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, funds to develop a prototype and conduct environmental testing of a drag sail for deorbiting space objects up to the size of launch vehicles. Spinnaker3 is scheduled to be tested in November, when deployed with a Firefly Alpha rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“If we don’t get satellites or other launch vehicle components out of orbit, then eventually highly utilized orbits are going to become unusable for other space systems,” says Spencer in a Purdue statement. “Drag sail technology is designed to launch with a host spacecraft or launch vehicle and deploy at the end of the host vehicle’s mission.”

The sail is made from a clear high-performance polymer called CP-1 designed for harsh environments. The device is deployed on three-foot booms that extend from the vehicle at right angles. Purdue spacecraft laboratory engineer Anthony Cofer, who leads Spinnaker 3’s design and testing, points out that the passive nature of the device masks its demanding requirements. “The drag sail booms need to be extremely lightweight, and they need to be stowed into a tight volume,” says Cofer. “Once deployed, the sail needs to maintain its integrity throughout the deorbit phase, which could be months or years.”

Spinnaker3 is also designed to bring back launch vehicles faster than when left on their own. Arly Black, a Purdue Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics working on the project notes, “Taking into consideration predicted atmospheric conditions for November, the Firefly Aerospace launch vehicle could deorbit on its own at a low altitude of about 200 miles within 25 days. Using Spinnaker3, the deorbiting process could shorten to 15 days.”

Science & Enterprise reported in July 2019 on an earlier SBIR award to Vestigo for a space-deployed drag sail that retrieves and deorbits smaller orbiting items such as CubeSats, standardized containers for research materials from academic or commercial labs. Purdue’s Space Flight Projects Lab partnered with Vestigo on that work as well.

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