After more than five decades of sending satellites into orbit, outer space has become a little cluttered.
Now, 55 years on from the launch of Sputnik, scientists have developed a way to help humans clear up after themselves.
Engineers have created a device which attaches to satellites and burns them up once they have served their purpose.
It is hoped the “aerobrake” will put an end to the increasing amount of space junk orbiting the Earth, some of which can travel at speeds of several kilometres per second.
They often collide, creating more debris, and working satellites and spacecraft can be damaged by coming into contact with the fragments.
Patrick Harkness of Glasgow University’s School of Engineering led the development of AEOLDOS (Aerodynamic End Of Life Deorbit System).
He said: “It’s only been 55 years since Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, was sent into orbit, but since then we’ve managed to make quite a mess of the space around our planet.
“The rate at which we’re putting objects into orbit is accelerating each year, which is why it’s vital for us to take more control over how they can be removed from orbit once they have served their purpose.”
The foldable device can be added to small satellites, known as CubeSats, before they go into orbit.
When the CubeSat reaches the end of its operational life, the aerobrake springs open to generate aerodynamic drag against the thin upper atmosphere.
As the satellite falls out of orbit this effect increases, causing it to burn up.
CubeSats are used for space-related research projects and are generally sent into space as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles.
Dr Harkness said they are currently aimed at lower orbits than desired to make sure they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years in line with United Nations‘ recommendations.
He said: “This can curtail the full scientific potential of CubeSats, but AEOLDOS gives users much more control over the end of their project’s life and could enable missions to take place at much higher altitudes because they know we can always produce the drag they will need to dispose of the spacecraft in time.”
AEOLDOS was developed in partnership with CubeSat and nanosatellites manufacturer Clyde Space.
Malcolm McRobb, also from the School of Engineering, believes the technology has applications beyond space debris control.
He said: “The technology could be used to enable solar sailing missions, where spacecraft can manoeuvre using the pressure of sunlight. Or it could form the basis of deployable antennae, increasing the sensitivity of small, low-powered spacecraft.
“We expect that another year to 18 months of development will see the AEOLDOS system available for commercial use through our licensing agreement with Clyde Space.
“After we have demonstrated that the technology can work in space, we are looking forward to designing these new and exciting applications for the device.”