One of the major factors that contribute to the rise in space debris is the surge in the number of small satellite launches. When these satellites go dysfunctional or serve their purpose, they are often left as it is in their orbits, which results in space debris and is potentially dangerous.
Many solutions to this problem have been proposed that involve capturing and disposing of the debris. But a better solution would be to create less debris in the first place. This can be possible if satellites are equipped with a self-destruct technology when they’ve served their purpose. The ESA recently reported that an iodine thruster system has been placed to adjust the orbit of a small satellite.
The idea here that when a small satellite is no longer needed, it can destroy itself by using a thruster to change its orbit towards the atmosphere making it burn into ashes. With this method, the satellite won’t leave any debris in its old orbit.
The new technology is developed by a France-based firm called ThrustMe. The company uses iodine as a propellant, which is very unusual for thrusters. The reason is iodine being cheaper than other propellants and isn’t toxic in nature, making the whole process a lot simpler.
“When heated, it turns to gas without going through a liquid phase, which makes it ideal for a simple propulsion system,” ESA explained. “It is also denser than traditional propellants, so it occupies smaller volumes onboard the satellite.”
The first-ever satellite to incorporate this technology was the SpaceTy Beihangkongshi-1, which is a telecommunications nanosat. It took flight in November last year from China. The new propellant system was successfully tested recently and it was later used to change the orbit of the satellite. We might see more of such systems being used on small satellites at a relatively cheaper cost, enabling them to self-destruct when their services are no longer required.
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