We’ve looked at the problem of orbiting space junk before and the threat it poses to the future of space exploration and the use of satellites. Now scientists have devised a miniature “nanosatellite” fitted with a “solar sail” that can be used on satellites or upper stage launch vehicles. Once the equipment that has reached the end of its mission, the solar sails can be deployed to successfully achieve de-orbit. While it won’t cut the amount of debris already whizzing around above our heads, it will help stop future missions adding to the problem.

As a result of 50 years of abandoning spacecraft there is believed to be more than 5,500 tonnes of debris cluttering space around the planet and posing a threat to hugely expensive technology as well as unmanned and manned spacecraft. To help mitigate the build-up of debris - which is expected to grow at a rate of five percent a year - the “CubeSail” would deploy to act as an “aerobrake”. Friction between the sail and the thin atmosphere would slow the debris down so that it de-orbits and burn up in the atmosphere – a process that can take more than 100 years normally.

At 5 x 5 meters and weighing 3 kg the deployable sail is being developed to fit in a 10 x 10 x 30 cm nanosatellite and will be used in a demonstration mission to be launched in late 2011 demonstrating passive means of de-orbiting for future satellites.

The idea of deploying a sail to de-orbit space debris was originally hatched by a couple of space-flight engineers at European space company Astrium, which is now funding the University of Surrey project that is responsible for the development of the CubeSail.

Dr Vaios Lappas, lead researcher on the project and Senior Lecturer in Space Vehicle Control at the Surrey Space Centre, said, “Successful deployment and testing of the sail can enable a low cost/mass solution to be used for future satellites and launch vehicle upper stages reducing dramatically the problem of space debris. Following successful in orbit demonstration, the proposed de-orbit system will be offered as a standard de-orbit system for Low Earth Orbit missions for satellites with a mass of less than 500 kg at a very low cost."

CubeSail is due to be ready for launch on new satellites next year, and is expected to be available for shifting existing debris from 2013.