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China uses Drag Sail to successfully clean up space junk

Chinese space scientists say they have successfully used a huge space sail to remove debris from Earth’s orbit.

Announced by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology on July 6, the huge sail was launched and successfully used to deorbit the Long March 2 rocket.

The sail is made of an incredibly thin membrane, one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, and measures approximately 270 square feet. When attached to the Long March 2 rocket, it served to increase atmospheric drag acting on the rocket, accelerating the orbital decay process and removing it from orbit more quickly.

According to Interesting Engineering, the sail material is inexpensive, flexible and lightweight, meaning it can easily be produced and launched to clear any form of space debris from orbit.

Of the nearly 5,000 satellites still orbiting Earth, only around 2,000 remain operational, meaning the rest are now classified as space junk. There are also up to 27,000 pieces of smaller debris which are also being tracked by NASA, clogging the orbital area and moving extremely fast – 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit. The more things we send into orbit, the more likely they are to collide, which in turn creates a lot of extra pieces of space junk. In 2009, a former Russian spacecraft collided with an American commercial Iridium spacecraft, adding 2,300 pieces of large traceable debris and countless smaller pieces of debris to the already occupied orbit.

space debris
Stock image of space debris orbiting Earth. The drag sail is designed to expedite the removal of space junk from orbit.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Space debris has the potential to be deadly in future space missions. While small pieces of debris floating in the distance might not seem like a big deal, in March 2022 a fast piece of a Chinese rocket crashed into the surface of the moon. Had it hit the International Space Station (ISS) instead, it could have been catastrophic. The ISS has had to complete 25 maneuvers since 1999 to avoid being hit by oncoming debris. Even if space junk hits something humans don’t live on, it could still have dramatic consequences as we depend on satellites for so many things, from communication and navigation to search and rescue and weather monitoring.

Although anything orbiting Earth will eventually fall to the ground once an orbit naturally decays, it can take a very long time, especially if they are orbiting away from Earth. Space debris in high Earth orbit, about 22,000 miles away, can take hundreds or even thousands of years to fall back to Earth. This sail technology aims to speed up the process of orbital decay, which means we can get rid of debris from orbit faster and hopefully keep future spacecraft and astronauts safe.

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