Italian Engineers Design Satellites that Decommission Themselves

D-Orbit is launching small satellites that will perform experiments and then come back to the surface in an effort to rid orbit of 'space junk'.

Alessio Fanfani and his team at the D-Orbit mission are big on space but also concerned with sustainability. Dozens of companies are launching hundreds of missions into space in the next decades, and D-Orbit wants to help make space free of debris.

A NASA stat says that hundreds of thousands of debris chunks are in Earth orbit, ranging in size from 1 to 10 centimeters. Objects in orbit at 36,000 kilometers, for example, might take thousands of years to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Their project D-Sat is a satellite designed to perform its mission and then pull itself out of orbit. The team is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a set of in-orbit experiments.

The self decommissioning is one feature of the D-Sat but the main mission is sending and receiving MAMES data, messages sent from Earth. When natural disasters strike and threaten remote areas the team hopes that the satellites can take emergency messages and send them to public safety officials.

During the satellite’s trip back down to the surface atmospheric data will also be recorded, from regions that can’t be accessed by weather balloons. The final experiment performed is the decommissioning itself. As the satellites burn out and turn to ash a debris footprint is created, helping the team to build future generations of disposable units. There’s more information about D-Orbit as a company and their decommissioning technology at the corporate website.

For me the best part of this mission is the coupling of scientific experiments and the commitment to sustainability. The efficiency of testing a new concept in debris disposal and providing proof of concept for a new emergency broadcasting system feels like a great lesson in optimization. The campaign page spends a good deal of its space discussing all of the debris currently in orbit, and the dangers that might be associated with that floating garbage pile. I’m also charmed by the idea that engineers are fighting against space debris clogging up our orbits while others are working to remove the great gyres currently polluting our oceans. The campaign ends on July 3, 2017.

(Note: This article was edited June 8, 2017 to reflect the correct reason for Kickstarter funding.)