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The Stakes

Space Debris Mitigation


Background:  Rocket bodies from decades of launch ofsatellites into Earth orbit are the largest component of space debris by mass,and they may pose a significant present and future threat to operation of spacesystems in certain orbits. Most of these objects will remain in place forseveral more decades before they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and eventuallyburn up. The Air Force and others are interested in long term reduction in thenumber of large rocket bodies in low earth orbits, especially near-polar andsun synchronous orbits, to help preserve and extend the effective use ofspace.  It may be feasible to attachpropulsion systems to these bodies, but another, possibly less difficultalternative, is to clear critical orbits and accelerate de-orbiting through dragaugmentation of the large debris objects.  A specific technical challenge is the finalengagement with rocket bodies, and the attachment and deployment ofdrag-enhancing devices to increase drag by an order of magnitude.

A New Design Concept:  This SeniorCapstone Design project is to develop a satellite payload that can be deployedfrom the satellite, positively engage with a representative rocket body anddeploy a drag enhancing device while staying attached to the rocket body. It isassumed that the satellite hosting the payload will maneuver near and maintainproximity with the rocket body at an initial distance of 5 meters. For ademonstration, the relative motion between the satellite and the rocket body willbe up to 10 cm/s magnitude in translation– in any combination of three axes –and that the body may be tumbling in one axis with a period of between 5seconds and one minute (60 seconds), implying body rotation rates up to 60degrees/s.  The cylindrical rocket body willbe 2 meters long, with a diameter of 0.75 m and is closed off at each end. Thebody test article has a mass of between 50 and 100 kg.


A final demonstration will include twomajor phases, to be conducted in sequence. First, the payload, installed in a simulated satellite, will deploy andseparate from the satellite and grapple, capture or otherwise positively engagethe tumbling rocket body.  Second, whileattached to the rocket body, and without having been compromised by the initialengagement, the payload will deploy a drag enhancement device or system.  The drag enhancement will be designed toincrease the ratio of the area to mass of the assembly (the rocket body combinedwith the drag enhancer) by 10 times compared to the area/mass of the rocketbody alone.   The size and mass of thepayload packaged in the satellite should be minimized and the area it consumeson the face of the satellite in the direction of deployment should also beminimized.  The satellite will include avideo camera that may be used to locate and quantify motions of the rocketbody.  The overall system design shouldbe for operation in space, and should accommodate, but not rely on gravity andatmospheric effects present in the ground demonstration.


The University Design Challenge willculminate in a ground demonstration of the student designs.


Skills Needed for This Work:  (1) Basic understanding of dynamics. (2) Simulation skillsto account for gravity and atmospheric effects.  (3) Mechanical andElectrical design skills for including evaluation of mechanisms for deployment. (4) Test planning and testing skills to ensure capability of a finished design.

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