Space sail successfully deploys during commercial space trip


A “space sail” that failed to deploy correctly during an initial test last year has been successfully deployed for the first time during a commercial mission.

The de-orbiting sail, which has been developed by researchers at the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey in the UK, decelerates spacecraft such as satellites so they fall back to Earth and do not remain in orbit as space junk.

The sail was fitted to two robotic “Free flyers” developed and launched by Seattle, Washington-based Spaceflight Industries. The upper and lower Free flyers are robotic platforms that launch a series of satellites for different customers while in orbit.

The Free flyers were launched for the first time last December. The pair of sails will enable the lower Free Flyer to deorbit within 5 years, and the upper Free Flyer in less than 14, far less than the 25 years that is the requirement.

The sail was initially developed and tested last year for the European project RemoveDEBRIS, as one of a number of world-first active debris removal technologies. However, the sail failed to deploy correctly during the demonstration.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre said, “While we were disappointed that the sail on the otherwise highly successful RemoveDEBRIS did not deploy as expected, we learned from that experience and built a more robust system for this commercial mission.”

The de-orbiting sail system consists of a 16m2 metalized thin film sheet, supported by carbon fibre booms. The team at the Surrey Space Center took just six months to develop, build and test the sails for the latest mission.

Ben Taylor, systems engineer at the Surrey Space Centre said, “We were delighted to see observations confirming that the sails we have provided to Spaceflight are working as planned. The sails are regularly bright enough to be visible to the naked eye.”

“We believe that Surrey Space Centre has now successfully deployed the most instances of this debris removal technology and we now have a strong history of demonstrating the success of this self-contained sail system.”

Jeff Roberts, mission director at Spaceflight said, “The de-orbit sails provided by Dr. Taylor’s team at the Surrey Space Centre helped us responsibly de-orbit our spacecraft deployers after completing the record-setting SSO-A mission.

“Spaceflight is committed to being a responsible steward of the space environment and Surrey Space Centre is a key partner in helping us put our words into action.”

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About Author


Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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